Pakistan is holding general elections on February 8th, 2024, but the campaign has been marred by controversy, allegations of a rigged election, and the imprisonment of popular opposition leader Imran Khan. Khan, the former Prime Minister who was ousted in a no-confidence vote in 2022, has been waging his campaign from behind bars while awaiting a verdict on charges of terrorism and sedition.
The lead up to Khan’s dramatic downfall
Imran Khan stormed to power in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform. The former cricket star formed his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in 1996 on the promise of building a corruption-free “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan).
After decades of domination by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Khan tapped into brewing discontent to propel himself to the premiership. He built a devoted base of support among young and middle-class voters tired of the dynastic politics of the Sharifs and Bhuttos.
|Imran Khan elected Prime Minister
|Loses no-confidence vote; Shehbaz Sharif takes over
|Starts protests & long march demanding early elections
|Arrested on sedition charges; campaigns from jail for elections
During his tenure, Khan struggled to deliver on his promises to reign in corruption and revive the economy. He blamed his failure on resistance from the opposition and “foreign conspiracy.”
In 2022, defections from his coalition resulted in Khan losing a no-confidence vote, leading to the return of longtime rival Nawaz Sharif’s party. Khan claimed his ouster was a regime change conspiracy engineered by the United States – a charge Washington denies.
Campaigning from behind bars
Since his ouster in April 2022, Khan has relentlessly protested the government and demanded early elections. The protest campaign reached fever pitch last year when he embarked on a cross-country “long march” with thousands of supporters.
The march ended abruptly when Khan was shot in the leg at a rally. Blaming the government and military for the assassination attempt, Khan redoubled his efforts to force early elections.
Key Arrests & Charges:
- Terrorism charges for threatening police and judge
- Sedition charges for criticizing military
- 10 year jail sentence for disclosing state secrets
In 2023, authorities arrested Khan and charged him with terrorism for allegedly threatening police officers and a judge at a rally speech. With the terrorism trial ongoing, he was hit with additional sedition charges in January 2024 for criticizing the military at a public event. Days later, Khan was handed a 10-year prison sentence in a closed-door trial for disclosing state secrets.
The imprisonments and mounting legal troubles have aimed to mute Khan’s dissent and tilt elections in favor of the ruling coalition – a strategy Khan calls blatant “political victimization.”
Yet the ex-cricket star turned politician has proven remarkably resilient, continuing his campaign from jail. Leveraging his enduring popularity, Khan has urged supporters to take to the streets and support PTI candidates on election day.
“I ask all my supporters to reach all polling stations and guard the ballot boxes,” he appealed in an audio message released after his latest conviction.
Running a “guerilla campaign” from prison
Stripped of access to conventional campaign methods from his high-security jail cell, Khan has adopted innovative tech-based tactics to influence the upcoming elections.
Dubbed a “guerilla campaign”, Khan is relying on smuggled mobile phones and his network outside jail to record short audio and video messages. These messages are then amplified on PTI’s vast social media machinery and private TV channels.
“We’ve trained a team of content creators who turn Khan’s messages into punchy videos within minutes,” a senior PTI leader revealed.
Social Media Firepower
The PTI boasts over 22 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – far ahead of all other parties. Leveraging this reach, Khan’s campaign goes viral every time he issues a new call to action.
Backed by slick editing and production, the videos portray Khan as a defiant hero rallying his base against injustice and electoral manipulation. His outreach seems unfettered despite authorities periodically blocking mobile signals or banning live coverage of PTI events.
“By the time the state reacts, the message has reached the public,” the PTI leader said.
Covert canvassing with AI chatbots
PTI has also quietly employed chatbots and interactive voice response (IVR) calls to canvass voters under the radar. With traditional door-to-door campaigning restricted and workers under surveillance, the party has relied on technology to directly access potential voters.
The chatbots pose as PTI workers by mimicking conversational patterns. After determining if the person supports PTI, the bots make personalized appeals to vote for Khan’s party and safeguard democracy.
The IVR calls use synthesized speech to deliver pre-recorded messages from Khan and ask people to report to polling stations on election day. The calls appear to come from phone numbers with local area codes to boost engagement.
Combined with Khan’s fiery video messages, this covert digital outreach has kept his base energized despite authorities’ efforts to squeeze PTI’s campaign. However, new social media blackouts targeting PTI threaten to blunt the impact of Khan’s “guerilla campaign” in the home stretch of elections.
Allegations of a “controlled election”
Khan has long accused the military establishment of backing the current government and plotting his removal with America’s backing. He alleges the generals are engineering the upcoming elections to sideline the PTI and benefit their “puppet” parties like the PML-N.
These claims gained traction after Pakistan’s election commission disqualified Khan from contesting elections and de-seated dozens of PTI lawmakers. The commission cited Khan’s conviction in the state secrets case as grounds for his lifelong disqualification.
PTI leaders called the controversial decision a “blatant attempt at rigging” ordered by the establishment to orchestrate Khan’s political demise. However, the country’s Supreme Court has since allowed Khan to contest after suspending the electoral panel’s ruling pending appeal.
Beyond muzzling Khan and stripping PTI candidates, critics point to blatant interference by state institutions to pre-determine the election:
- Censorship: Media outlets seen as pro-PTI face restrictions and censorship
- Harassment: PTI leaders routinely face cases, arrests and travel barriers
- Engineering defections: Establishment accused of coercing PTI lawmakers to defect
- Poll management: Military officers overseeing polling stations; civil-military friction over control
“All the tools of pre-poll rigging are being employed against PTI,” said observer Ayesha Siddiqa. She noted the lopsided campaign conditions and “complete fusion” between the military and Khan’s successor Shehbaz Sharif.
What next? Street agitation or political wilderness
Most observers expect the PML-N led ruling coalition to retain power aided by covert backing from the powerful military. A weakened PTI may still emerge as the second largest party, but Khan’s ability to mount effective opposition remains doubtful given his imprisonment and legal troubles.
“The establishment has achieved its goal of cutting Khan and PTI down to size,” said analyst Michael Kugelman. “But Khan retains a devoted base and could still be a political force upon his release.”
If Khan fails to prevent the formation of a PML-N government, analysts warn he may adopt a disruptive strategy to undermine the new dispensation. Having mobilized supporters for months to resist a stolen election, he could unleash countrywide protests and sit-ins to paralyze the next administration.
“The agitation aimed at ousting the new government could be more ferocious than the campaign itself,” cautioned journalist Benazir Shah.
However, given his tenuous legal position, the beleaguered Khan may have no option but to cool off protests and focus on battling court cases. Failure to regain political space could see the former World Cup winner fade into oblivion.
“Khan faces two stark realities – jail or political wilderness,” assessed writer Mosharraf Zaidi. “The coming months will determine whether the former PM is down or out.”
While the PTI fights for survival, the winner of Pakistan’s bitter electoral battle appears pre-determined. The establishment has already taken revenge on Khan for challenging its primacy in national politics. Whether he bounces back remains to be seen, but for now the military has clearly signaled – no one messes with it and escapes unhurt.
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