Locked in his prison cell, Pakistani politician Imran Khan could hardly have hoped for a better outcome. Just days before the February 8 election, the cricket legend turned populist politician was sentenced to more than a decade in prison in three trumped-up cases. His party was stripped of its cricket bat symbol by the Electoral Commission, depriving voters of the ability to identify the party on ballot papers, a vital aspect of voting in a country where 40 percent of the population is illiterate, and forcing its candidates to run as independents. Its members were beaten, imprisoned and pushed into rival parties or out of politics altogether.
On Election Day, cell phone signals disappeared and internet access was disrupted. After the vote, there were widespread allegations that many votes had been stolen overnight, thus overturning unassailable leads. And yet, despite all efforts to thwart them, Khan's supporters recorded the largest number of votes and won the largest number of seats.
Independent candidates affiliated with Khan's party, who won 93 national seats out of a total of 295 and won one province, were denied a majority as they insisted on their victory and could be excluded from government, but the vote represents a capital development. A new generation of voters has emerged, concentrated in Pakistan's booming cities and now demanding a break with history. These voters want the power to choose their own leaders, not leave the country in the hands of a powerful military that has maintained a granite grip on politics for most of its history.
When Khan fell out with the generals who brought him to power and was ousted from office in April 2022, his young supporters staged large, sometimes violent protests. Despite brutal repression over the next two years, they persevered and demonstrated their defiance in the only way left to them: through peaceful, democratic voting.
The determination of young voters to decide their own future could become a trend this year in the Global South, as billions of people head to the polls in at least 64 countries. Pakistan has an increasingly young and growing population. With the fifth largest population in the world, almost half of all eligible voters are aged 35 or younger. Since the last elections in 2018, 21 million new voters have been registered. This trend will continue inexorably over the next two decades. Pakistan is home to around 100 million people under the age of 18.
This is a generation of Pakistanis who have grown up feeling like a nation long denied its promise: mired in economic hardship, scarred by years of terrorism, ravaged by climate change, dismayed by the way how their country is perceived in the world, and angry at the irresponsible and venal elites who reduced them to this ruin.
For many of these voters, Khan represented something new. In the run-up to the 2018 elections, he stirred up rare feelings of national pride, something he has been effective at since winning Pakistan's only Cricket World Cup trophy in 1992. They loved his charisma, his religious fervor, his charitable work, and his celebrity. Khan skillfully exploited this tendency for change, presenting himself as a man of destiny who would single-handedly sweep away the country's many problems and suddenly elevate Pakistan to the glory it deserved.
The plausibility of his promises has received little scrutiny. All it took was someone to make them.
At the time, Khan's popularity was significant but not decisive. The military had grown weary of the two political dynasties that had dominated the country's turbulent periods of civilian rule, the center-right Sharifs of the Muslim League and the center-left Bhutto-Zardaris of the People's Party. In Khan, the military saw someone who, with his strong English and Oxford University education, could provide a useful civilian veneer while holding on to the key levers of power.
The 2018 election that propelled Khan into the prime minister's house was marred by numerous irregularities that his supporters now complain about: a former prime minister in jail, tilted electoral playing field, intimidation of candidates and creative impetus late evening. arithmetic.
During his three and a half years in government, Khan proved disappointing to his supporters and dangerous to his detractors and opponents. His cabinet was filled with familiar, worn faces, including his foreign minister and interior minister, from the same ruling elite he had railed against. None of the dreams he promised came to fruition. The economy has seen modest progress, with the rollout of some new social assistance programs.
What has changed is the repression. Working closely with the military, the opposition was thrown behind bars, the noisy media was subdued, civil society was stifled, and social movements based on ethnicity were crushed. Khan has turned his campaign rhetoric into vicious demagoguery, taunting his imprisoned opponents, accusing rape victims of wearing very little clothing and hailing the Taliban in Afghanistan for breaking the chains of slavery.
However, his exit from power changed everything and gave him a chance to become the national hero again. By late 2021, Khan's relations with the powerful generals he relied on had become strained. He had approached the head of intelligence at the time, Lieut. General Faiz Hameed and refused to replace him. The military high command feared that the two men would sneak a deal to consolidate each other's power for the next decade.
The Pakistan Army is proud of its unity and will not tolerate interference from civilians in its senior ranks. In April 2022, then-army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa withdrew his support for Khan, leaving him vulnerable to a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
In scenes that some observers have compared to a revolutionary moment, Khan's supporters took to the streets to protest his ouster. The generals made a fatal miscalculation: the unpopularity of the government does not mean the unpopularity of the opposition. Khan has become a magnet for sympathy, even for those who hate his policies. He was involved in around 200 grotesque cases, including charges of so-called blasphemy, terrorism, sedition and even illegal marriage.
At one point an Orwellian order was issued to ensure his name could not be mentioned on television. With every fabricated accusation, every protest crushed, and every Khan supporter arrested or harassed, the sense of injustice deepened. It is no longer about Khan or his divisive policies, but whether Pakistan's weak and battered democracy can survive.
Last week's vote shows that it is possible. On the one hand, the old tactics aimed at stifling the voices of the people no longer work. Khan's tech-savvy supporters have rejected every obstacle thrown their way. They replaced videos of Khan himself with artificial intelligence-generated footage of him reading written speeches from prison. They defied bans on public gatherings with digital rallies. Attempts to confuse voters with a bewildering array of independent candidates and symbols have been debunked through personalized constituency WhatsApp groups. And the suspicious alteration of the election results could still be challenged in court thanks to the evidence that Khan's supporters have diligently gathered.
Looking ahead to the upcoming elections, the demographics are unstoppable: Pakistan's population of 240 million is expected to reach more than 400 million by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Fund. There are good reasons to fear a new Khan government. He seems to value democracy only to the extent that it provides a procedural path to power. If he ever returns to power, he could seek to build a one-man state around himself.
But that is no reason to deny his supporters their constitutional right. They're not about to stop claiming it either. The repression only strengthened their resolve. Even if this time they are denied the government of their choice, what will happen next time, when there are even more young voters? At some point, something will have to give.
Pakistani voters are no longer ready to play a role in a play written for them. The only sustainable way forward is to build a democracy that is both responsive to their needs and strong enough to protect its institutions and hold governments accountable – a democracy that counts votes and offers more than a mirage. election day.
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