Imran Khan supporters ‘here to stay’ as young Pakistanis turn out to vote

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Volunteers for former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) look on as they watch results on TV screens after the end of the polling during a general election at the party’s main office in Islamabad, Pakistan, February 8, 2024. REUTERS/Charlotte Greenfield

By Charlotte Greenfield and Ariba Shahid

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Below huge wall-mounted photos of jailed former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Naila Khan Marwat cheered with scores of young volunteers on election night whenever counts on TV channels suggested their candidate was in the lead.

Then she returned to her laptop to collect complaints of alleged electoral rules violations from candidates, compiled with 50 other young women to give to party lawyers launching legal challenges.

Marwat, 26, worked until the early hours of Friday at the party headquarters in Pakistan’s capital, tracking the results closely, a more confusing task than usual after former cricket hero Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters were barred from running as PTI candidates and using the cricket bat party symbol. They had to run as independents.

“We have memorised all of the symbols and all the names of our candidates,” said Marwat, a law student. “We know every candidate and every symbol.”

Pakistan voted on Thursday in a critical general election as it struggles to recover from an economic crisis and battles militant violence in a deeply polarised political environment.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared victory on Friday, saying his party has emerged as the largest and would talk to other groups to form a coalition government.

Final results were unclear due to an unusual counting delay, but independents, most backed by PTI, accounted for the biggest group with 92 of the 225 seats counted by 1600 GMT, doing much better than expected and taking many by surprise.

Khan was ousted from power in 2022, jailed in August and has received multi-year bans from taking part in politics over a series of corruption and criminal charges.

PTI’s strong showing suggests a possible protest element spurring turnout and the enduring resilience of Khan’s support, analysts said. If the independents cannot form a government on their own, their large number could make Pakistan more unstable, they fear.

PTI supporters said the playing field was unfair, including a day-long cut in mobile services during polling on security grounds after a series of militant attacks. The PTI relies heavily on its social media presence, including automated social media responses that helped citizens find their polling booths and PTI-backed candidates.

Pakistan’s election commission has said it will look into allegations of violations.

“PTI is definitely here to stay. It may have been hollowed out and cut down to size, but … its support base remains large and loyal,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “Khan remains a force to be reckoned with, even from his jail cell.”

YOUNG, ENDURING SUPPORTERS

That support base, at odds with powerful army generals, has been grappling with a military-backed crackdown. The party alleges the crackdown gathered pace ahead of Thursday’s vote as the military sought to keep it out of the race, a charge the army denies.

Some analysts and voters have said that public perception of military involvement in politics may have driven Khan supporters to the polls, alongside frustration at months of soaring inflation and anger at the three prison sentences Khan has received.

“One of the reasons the military may be concerned is that there are signs of some genuine grassroots support,” said Maya Tudor, associate professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, adding the mobile services suspension on election day, after authorities had reassured people there would be no blanket communications failure, was a possible sign of worry.

Marwat, the law student, said she joined PTI in 2016 and cast her first vote for it in 2018, drawn by its leader who she saw as being “true” to Pakistan. Khan’s sentences galvanised her and many of her peers, she said.

“Haven’t you seen the other great leaders? Like Nelson Mandela? …There are so many great leaders who have been in prison and they are suffering a lot,” she said. “But things change.”

Pakistan’s elections have long been marred by accusations of rigging and the imprisoning of political figures. While the turbulence is not new, analysts and supporters say PTI’s responsive campaign that cuts across demographics is.

With its celebrity sportsman figurehead and social media presence, PTI is also popular with Pakistan’s huge youth population that is growing every election cycle. Newspaper Dawn estimated Pakistan added 10 million since the 2018 election.

One of them, software engineering student Nayaba Akhtar, 21, said she was inspired to vote for a PTI-backed independent.

“It feels great,” she said. “I’m sad Imran Khan isn’t here, but I’m happy my first vote is for Imran Khan.”

 

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Ariba Shahid; Additional reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by YP Rajesh and Nick Macfie)

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