Monday, April 15, 2024

Pakistan’s youth supported Imran Khan, upending traditional politics

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The actions taken against former prime minister Imran Khan’s political party in recent months followed a familiar playbook for a disgraced political movement in Pakistan. Khan was jailed on charges that his supporters say were politically motivated, party offices were raided, and its election efforts were ignored by TV networks.

But the apparent campaign to dismantle Khan’s party, it now appears, may have vastly underestimated the generation that followed Khan online and not on television, and that already accounts for around half of all voters in this nuclear-armed country of 240 million.

On Thursday, millions of young voters rallied behind the party they said the establishment was most determined to keep down. Pakistan’s youth delivered the biggest election surprise in this country in half a century, with candidates backed by Khan gaining more seats than any other party in Parliament.

After Pakistan’s shocking election result, all eyes are on the generals

“The election results have shown one thing: The old playbook won’t do anymore,” said Mohammad Malick, a Pakistani political analyst. “If the army still wants to keep its influence and stay involved, it will have to adopt different tactics.”

For now, Khan’s party is unlikely to return to power anytime soon. Despite its performance being well above expectations, it fell short of an absolute majority in Parliament and has no obvious coalition partners after falling out of favor with the political system.

As expected, three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party announced Tuesday that it is set to form a government with the backing of the Pakistan People’s Party and smaller parties, which have the tacit approval of the establishment.

Sharif will leave the prime minister’s office to his younger brother, Shehbaz, who was leading a fragile coalition government after Khan was ousted by Parliament in April 2022. Even before the new government was formed, however, some analysts are already predicting its demise.

At almost every turn over the past weeks, Khan’s party, the Movement for Justice (known as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI), found ways to defy odds that appeared stacked against it.

When authorities banned the party’s recognizable cricket bat symbol — which many illiterate voters had in the past relied on to identify the party on the ballot — Khan’s candidates used TikTok to promote their new symbols to rural voters. And despite being in jail, Khan himself surprised everyone with a victory speech in a video generated by artificial intelligence on Friday, telling his supporters: “You have laid the foundation for true freedom.”

While the PTI’s campaign struck a nerve with digital-savvy young voters by putting them at the center of their messaging, Khan’s main political rivals failed to grasp the magnitude of this election’s generational challenge, said Malick.

When Sharif, another Pakistani ex-leader who had run afoul of the military, returned from self-exile in October after appearing to have reconciled with the army, his speeches were all “about him, not about the youth,” Malick said.

Zulfi Bukhari, a PTI spokesman, said in an interview that a preliminary analysis of voter profiles suggests that the strategy of Khan’s party worked. “A whole new population — they all voted for PTI.”

Some reasons for the frustration of Pakistan’s youth could fade if circumstances change. Many are fed up with economic uncertainty and stagnation, which they blame on corruption and family dynasties like the Sharifs that have dominated Pakistani politics for decades.

But never have those sentiments been voiced so cynically and so publicly than on Pakistani social media over the past days, potentially straining the delicate balance between civilian leaders and Pakistan’s powerful military in ways that could be felt for a long time.

“They’re making fun of our country, so we’re making fun of them,” said Uzair Choudhry, a 19-year old cellphone vendor in Islamabad, who voted for the PTI.

After Pakistan’s shocking election result, all eyes are on the generals

In one potential indication for how the establishment could turn against digital spaces, mobile internet was suddenly suspended nationwide as voters began heading to vote on Thursday, and it remained cut off long after polls closed. While Khan’s supporters suspect that this was part of an effort to derail the party’s plans to mobilize voters and to document alleged electoral fraud, Pakistani authorities have justified the shutdown by citing the risk of terrorist attacks potentially powered by mobile internet.

Pakistan’s military leadership has repeatedly denied allegations of a crackdown against the PTI and has maintained that it does not get involved in Pakistani politics.

There were early signs that the internet could spell trouble for Pakistan’s establishment. When Khan was ousted by parliament in April 2022, his party supporters immediately took to social media to denounce what they viewed as a removal that had been orchestrated by Pakistan’s military and the United States.

Dozens of social media users were arrested after anti-military and anti-American posts spread online in a campaign that officials at the time said had been launched by Khan’s party.

Pakistani officials also blamed social media for having contributed to nationwide riots by Khan supporters in May, in the wake of Khan’s arrest. Pakistan’s government compared the riots to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by supporters of President Donald Trump.

The establishment’s concerns over the impact of social media appeared to be on the rise in the lead-up to the election. Without directly blaming the PTI, Pakistan’s military chief Asim Munir condemned the creation of “an atmosphere of anxiety, despair and chaos on social media” in December, state television quoted him as saying.

But the PTI and its supporters say that rather than being a threat, the internet could make Pakistan’s political debate more informed. TikTok in particular has played a major role in mobilizing rural youth, said Jibran Ilyas, who helps to direct the PTI’s social media efforts. Through TikTok, the party was able to reach millions of illiterate voters who don’t use Facebook and other text-heavy platforms.

Asim Amin, 22, who lives in rural northwestern Pakistan, said TikTok opened his eyes about Khan in the lead-up to the election. Even though the jailed candidate could not campaign in person, Amin followed his party’s videos on health care and the economy.

“Khan is the true leader of the country,” he said.

For Malick, the political analyst, last week’s election result signals that Pakistani parties will need to work harder to win votes in the future. “This is the first election where the candidate was not seeking the voter, but actually the voter was seeking the candidate.”

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