One of Pakistan’s most prominent politicians, former cricket star Imran Khan, fell at a political rally Tuesday, leaving him with two hairline skull fractures and knocking him off the campaign trail ahead of Saturday’s general election.
Khan has emerged as a wild-card candidate and it is unclear how much his widespread personal popularity will translate into votes at the polls. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, however, is considered one of the top three parties in the country.
Khan was treated at the hospital he himself built in honor of his late mother in the eastern city of Lahore. Doctors told local television that Kahn suffered two minor fractures to the skull and had a backache, but none of his injuries were life-threatening.
Just hours after the fall, the charismatic politician spoke to reporters from his hospital bed. He was visibly shaken and had a cut on his forehead, but he was still asking people to vote for his party.
“I have done whatever I could do,” he told national broadcaster Dunya TV. “Now you have to decide whether you want to make a new Pakistan.”
Asad Omar, leader of Khan’s party, told Pakistan’s Geo News that party leaders would meet Wednesday to discuss how to continue his campaign during the next three days.
He said Khan will spend the night at the hospital, and that doctors are asking him to rest for 15 days. But the former cricket star, Omar said, is in good physical condition and wants to resume his political activities as soon as possible.
Outside the hospital, hundreds gathered awaiting word of his condition.
Dramatic television footage of the fall showed Khan standing on a stack of crates piled onto a forklift accompanied by at least three guards or supporters. As the forklift began to raise him up to the stage, the cricket star and three of the men standing next to him fall back over a railing.
Khan fell at least 5 meters, but it was not clear on what type of surface he landed. Local TV footage showed supporters carrying him away from the rally, apparently unconscious and with a bloodied face.
Family and close aides also were at the hospital to check on his condition.
“Imran Khan wants his supporters to remain peaceful and united, and he says he will soon be among them,” his sister, Rani Hafiz Khan, told the Pakistani ARY news channel by telephone.
The fall put a damper on what has been one of Pakistan’s most dynamic election campaigns. Khan earned legendary status in the country when he led the underdog national team to a 1992 cricket World Cup victory, and had injected new energy into a political system long dominated by dynasties.
He entered politics in the late 1990s but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that his PTI party gained a widespread national following.
Much of Khan’s support has come from young, middle-class Pakistanis in the country’s major cities, a potentially influential group. Almost half of Pakistan’s more than 80 million registered voters are under the age of 35.
According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of respondents viewed Khan favorably. However that figure dropped slightly from a year ago, and now Khan is slightly outranked by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the rival Pakistan Muslim League-N.
The 60-year-old Khan had been setting a furious pace of rallies and election events across the country to drum up support for his campaign. Few expect him to be the next prime minster, but his party could play a role as a kingmaker or form a solid opposition in parliament.
Interim Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso expressed concern over Khan’s injury and wished him a quick recovery. Sharif, whose party is competing heavily with Khan’s, announced he was suspending his campaign for the day out of respect for his opponent.
Political events in Pakistan can be a chaotic affair. Often crowds press up against areas where the candidates are speaking, and safety regulations are not always strictly followed.
The election will mark a historic transfer of power from one democratically elected government fulfilling its full term to another, something that has never happened in Pakistan’s coup-checkered history.
But the vote has been marred by near-daily violence by militants targeting candidates and their election offices.
Three bombings in northwest Pakistan targeting individuals involved in the election killed 18 people on Tuesday, police said, pushing the death toll from attacks on candidates and party workers to more than 100 since the beginning of April. Most of the violence has focused on three parties that have supported military operations against Taliban militants in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Khan believes the Pakistani army should withdraw from the tribal regions and resolve the conflict through negotiations. He’s also been an outspoken opponent of the U.S. drone program targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in northwest Pakistan.
Khan, who won only one seat in 2002 and boycotted polls in 2008, has led an electric campaign, galvanizing the middle class and young people in what he has called a “tsunami” of support that will propel him into office.
Main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif is widely tipped to win the election and secure an historic third term for his Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).