When Pakistan’s government censored the media, former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party posted campaign videos on TikTok. When the police banned his supporters from holding demonstrations, they organized virtual meetings online.
And when Khan ended up behind bars, his followers produced speeches using artificial intelligence to simulate his voice.
Khan’s message resonated with millions of people across the country who were frustrated by the country’s economic crisis and old political dynasties: Pakistan had been in steep decline for decades, he explained, and only he could restore its former greatness.
The success of candidates aligned with Khan’s party in last week’s elections (winning more seats than anyone else in Parliament) was a surprising setback for Pakistani politics. Since Khan fell out with the country’s generals and was ousted by Parliament in 2022, his supporters had faced an army-led crackdown that experts said was designed to sideline the former prime minister.
Its success marked the first time in Pakistan’s recent history that the political strategy used by the country’s powerful military for decades to maintain its power suddenly veered off course. It also demonstrated how Khan’s populist rhetoric and the country’s internet-savvy youth are on the rise. are rewriting politics in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 240 million that has fought military coups since its founding 76 years ago.
Now, as the parties of Khan and Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former prime minister, compete to win over other lawmakers and establish a coalition government, Pakistan finds itself in uncharted territory. If Khan’s party succeeds (an outcome many analysts consider unlikely), it would be the first time in Pakistan’s history that a civilian government would be led by a party at odds with the military and whose leader is behind bars.
Regardless of the outcome, Khan’s party “demonstrated that it has an unwavering political presence, tapping into the dissatisfaction of Pakistan’s youth,” said Adam Weinstein, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. . “The old manual for shaping the country’s politics is obsolete; “Social networks and youth mobilization have become revolutionary elements.”
For about half of Pakistan’s history, the military has ruled the country directly. When civilian governments were allowed to come to power, they were led by a handful of leaders (including Khan’s rival in this election, Sharif) who usually came to power with the support of the generals.
These military-aligned leaders built political parties around their family dynasties, passing down party leadership from one generation to the next and maintaining political power within a tight-knit circle. But in recent years, as the country’s young population has ballooned to about half of its electorate, there has been growing frustration with that system, analysts say.
Young people felt excluded from Pakistan’s political system because “someone in the family will always take the top spot,” said Zaigham Khan, an Islamabad-based political analyst. “The old parties are becoming obsolete because they refuse to change, and that created a vacuum for someone like Imran Khan.”
While Khan initially rose to political prominence with the help of the army, after his overthrow he took advantage of the youth’s yearning for change to strengthen his political base independently of the generals. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, produced political campaigns on social media (outside the reach of state censorship) that young people say sparked a political awakening for his generation.
In viral videos, Khan lashed out at the country’s generals, whom he blamed for his overthrow in 2022. He described how the military operated as a “deep state” that governed politics from behind the scenes and claimed that the United States had colluded with Pakistani officials for his removal from power. He described himself as a reformer who would bring change.
His message galvanized young people across the country.
“I am voting for change. “I am fed up with this whole system of political parties that have been ruling the country,” said Usman Saeed, 36, as he stood outside a polling station in Lahore on Thursday after casting his vote for PTI candidates. “They have imprisoned Imran Khan; that is the main problem; he shows that everything has been managed by the establishment,” he added, referring to the army.
Few of these voters remembered the discontent of Khan’s final months in office, when his popularity plummeted as inflation soared. If he had been allowed to complete his term, many analysts said, his party probably would not have won the next general election.
But even after his overthrow, the country’s military leaders appeared to underestimate the country’s shifting political sands. When Khan returned politically, the generals resorted to the old playbook to sideline him.
Authorities handed Mr. Khan dozens of charges that resulted in four separate sentences totaling 34 years in prison. They arrested hundreds of his supporters and, for the first time, cast a much wider net, going after the country’s elite Pakistanis, even those with close ties to the military itself.
That campaign of intimidation seemed only to bolster support for Khan. Because the repression was widely publicized on social media, he exposed and turned more of the public against the military’s heavy hand in politics. Many people who voted for Khan’s party last week said they did so simply to spite the generals.
Looming over the current political fight to form a new government are widespread accusations that the military altered the vote count and promises by Khan’s party of long, painful court battles to challenge dozens of results it claims the military rigged. On Sunday, thousands of Khan supporters took to the streets across the country to express their anger over allegations of election fraud, protests that were met with police batons and tear gas.
“PTI is a peaceful party that has started a revolution through the ballot box,” said the party’s leader in Punjab province, Hammad Azhar, on the platform known as X. “We will not allow our struggle to be hijacked by designs disastrous”.
The political standoff has put the country, whose history is plagued by military coups and mass unrest, on edge. Most agree that even though the election results show how many Pakistanis reject the country’s failed political system, Pakistan is still not moving in the direction of greater stability or stronger democracy.
“Even if the balance of power tips in favor of political parties, will they themselves act democratically?” said Bilal Gilani, CEO of Gallup Pakistan. “Or will they become more fascist in their ideologies? Will they exclude people who have not voted for them? That’s the question now.”
Zia ur-Rehman contributed reports.