With Imran Khan in prison, Pakistan is preparing for an election that most voters do not trust

At the top of a winding road in the hills of Islamabad, deep in the backyard of a private home, dozens of people are gathered and waiting for a political rally to begin, waving a few red and green flags.

Days before the national elections, this is how the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is running its election campaign in the wake of the authorities’ crackdown: quietly.

“I am trying my best, but there are obstacles for the police, for the administration,” Shoaib Shaheen, a PTI candidate and former lawyer, said upon arriving at the rally.

“Threats to our candidates and threats to our supporters and their companies,” he said. “But we’re still alive.”

People sit and wave political flags.
Supporters of Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party are seen at a small gathering in Islamabad, Pakistan. Many complain of harassment and raids by the Pakistani authorities. (Saleema Shivji/CBC)

Many of his fellow candidates have gone into hiding, fearing police raids and arrests. Some have been addressing rallies through video broadcasts recorded in unknown locations rather than attending in person.

Their leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was ousted from power by parliament in April 2022 after falling out with the country’s army, is in prison and banned from running in elections.

The party was also banned from using the widely known cricket bat symbol – a reference to Khan’s former life as a cricket star – in the election campaign, a crippling edict in a country where 40 percent of the population cannot read. . PTI candidates are essentially forced to run as independents, which is likely to further hurt the party’s chances.

watched Politician Imran Khan was sentenced to prison a few days before the Pakistani elections:

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was sentenced to 10 years in prison days before the elections

On Tuesday, a Pakistani court sentenced ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to 10 years in prison, after the court convicted him of divulging state secrets. The ruling comes one week before the country’s general elections in which Khan and his party are banned from participating despite remaining an effective political force.

The tactics against the PTI are part of a familiar playbook that Pakistan’s powerful military has used for decades to marginalize parties and politicians they no longer support. But experts said this latest crackdown is unusually bold.

“We have never seen anything like this before,” said Imtiaz Gul, a political analyst and executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Security Research and Studies.

“Given democratic decline and stagnation, this is the least credible election,” Gul said, with Khan’s removal outweighing concerns about the country’s image and democracy.

Man wearing a green jacket.
Imtiaz Gul, a political analyst and executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Security Research and Studies, describes this year’s elections in Pakistan as “the least credible elections.” (Saleema Shivji/CBC)

Gul warned of long-term consequences for this country of 241 million people, including worsening distrust in state institutions and continued instability.

Drive from prison

In the week before Pakistanis went to the polls, separate courts sentenced Khan to 10 and 14 years in prison, respectively, on charges of leaking state secrets and illegally selling state gifts.

A man sitting in front of the Pakistani flag looks up.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was banned from running in elections this year and is now in prison. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

These rulings were quickly followed by a seven-year prison sentence for what a local court deemed an illegal marriage to his current wife. Khan denied all the charges against him, describing them as politically motivated.

Despite the legal challenges, the PTI is determined to get Khan’s message out to millions of his supporters, using technology such as artificial intelligence to harness the populist politician’s appeal.

The party used an artificial intelligence voice generator to deliver Khan’s words, which were transcribed in his prison cell and relayed to his lawyer.

In the videos, Khan urges his supporters to go to the polls on Thursday and gives detailed instructions to voters to find their local candidates.

“Be brave,” Khan said, using an artificial intelligence voice generator, in one video. “There is no doubt of defeat.”

Still shot from the campaign video.
This is a screenshot of an AI generated campaign video for Imran Khan. (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf/YouTube)

Even behind bars, the former cricket star is still there He is still considered the most popular politician in the country.

A familiar face is back on the run

But the man most widely expected to win the election is Nawaz Sharif, who has already served as Pakistan’s prime minister three times.

Sharif himself fell out of favor with the army in 2017, enabling Khan to win, but the tables have turned again.

Pakistani courts overturned Sharif’s previous corruption convictions and ban him from running in the elections, paving his way to victory in these elections, in what analysts described as a behind-the-scenes agreement with the army generals.

The Pakistani army, which has directly ruled the country for more than three decades, always stresses that it does not interfere in the country’s politics, and denies being part of any crackdown on political parties.

The Pakistan Muslim League, led by Sharif, focuses on the message of creating job opportunities in a country whose economy is in crisis and whose inflation rate is approaching 40 percent. Electricity and gas bills have risen sharply as part of conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund to save Pakistan from default.

Close-up of a middle-aged bald man.
Nawaz Sharif, who served as Pakistan’s prime minister three times, is widely expected to win this year’s election. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

The economic message resonated with many voters, most of them elderly, who attended a rally this week in Punjab province and were happy to see Sharif back in the city.

Mahmoud Abbasi (70 years old) said, “If Nawaz Sharif wins, Pakistan will be more developed and successful.”

“If (Sharif) comes to power, in my opinion, it will be in the interest of the nation, it will be in the interest of our country,” said Qasim Ahmed, 21, who added that he felt lucky to have been able to see the three. The time when the Prime Minister speaks in person.

Another familiar face in the election is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, a member of one of Pakistan’s most prominent political families and leader of the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party.

Bhutto Zardari, the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, served as the country’s foreign minister in the short-lived coalition government that ruled after Khan was removed from power.

Pessimism before voting day

On the streets of the capital, there was little enthusiasm for an election that seemed – to many – predetermined.

“In my life, this is the first election I have witnessed without much activity or interest from the public,” said Shaukat Abbasi, 40, who runs a perfume shop in Apara, one of Islamabad’s oldest markets.

“This is not an election, but a choice,” the store owner said. “One party is punished on a regular basis and another party is favoured,” he said, referring to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Pakistan Muslim League, respectively.

A Gallup poll was conducted on Tuesday I supported this feelingSeven out of 10 Pakistanis surveyed said they lacked confidence in the integrity of their elections.

A group of police officers - some masked and some carrying a baton - walk through an outdoor area crowded with people and downed motorcycles.
Police officers point to the side of fallen motorcycles of supporters of Imran Khan’s PTI party, during a clash at a rally in Karachi, Pakistan, on January 28. (Reuters)

The same poll reported that a record 70 percent of the country’s population said that the economic conditions in which they live are getting worse.

Al-Abbasi shrugged as he pointed to the recent rise in electricity and gas bills.

“In this case, what can people do?”

The same frustrated look appeared in Tehseen Anjum’s voice as the 46-year-old wandered through the market.

She said she feels sad about the state of politics in the country but will vote on Thursday.

“I don’t trust the election, it’s not a fair fight,” she said. “The man we were going to vote for is in prison.”

(Tags for translation)Elections

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