Immured in his prison cell, Pakistani politician Imran Khan could scarcely have hoped for a better result. Just days before the country’s Feb. 8 election, the cricket legend-turned-populist politician was sentenced to more than a decade behind bars in three trumped-up cases. His party was stripped of its signature cricket bat symbol by the Election Commission, denying voters the chance to identify the party on ballot papers—a critical aspect of voting in a country where 40 percent of people are illiterate—and forcing its candidates to run as independents. Its members were beaten, imprisoned, and driven into rival parties or out of politics altogether.
On polling day, cell phone signals vanished, and internet access was choked. After the votes were cast, there were widespread allegations that many were stolen overnight, reversing unassailable leads. And yet, despite every effort to thwart them, Khan’s supporters recorded the highest number of votes and clinched the largest number of seats.
Independent candidates affiliated with Khan’s party, who took 93 out of a total of 295 national seats and won one province outright, were denied the majority that they insist they won and may be excluded from government, but the vote represents a momentous development. A new generation of voters has emerged—concentrated in Pakistan’s heaving towns and cities—who now demand a break with history. These voters want to have the power to choose their own leaders, not leave the country in the hands of the powerful military that has maintained a granitic grip on politics for most of its history.
When Khan fell out with the generals that brought him to power and was ousted from office in April 2022, his young supporters mounted vast, sometimes violent protests. Despite a vicious crackdown over the next two years, they persevered and demonstrated their defiance in the only way left to them: through a peaceful, democratic vote.
The determination of young voters to decide their own futures may become a trend this year in the global south as billions go to the polls in at least 64 countries. Pakistan has an increasingly young and growing population. With the fifth-largest population in the world, nearly half of all eligible voters are age 35 and younger. Since the last election, in 2018, 21 million new voters have been registered. That trend will inexorably continue over the next couple of decades— Pakistan is home to about 100 million people under the age of 18.
This is a generation of Pakistanis who have grown up with the sense of being a nation long denied its promise: mired in economic difficulty, scarred by years of terrorism, ravaged by climate change, dismayed by how their country is perceived in the world, and angry at the feckless and venal elites that have reduced them to this ruin.
For many of these voters, Khan represented something new. In the lead-up to the 2018 election, he stirred rare feelings of national pride, something that he has proved effective at ever since lifting Pakistan’s only Cricket World Cup trophy in 1992. They liked his charisma, his religious fervor, his charity work, and his celebrity. Khan skillfully tapped this mood for change, casting himself as a man of destiny who would single-handedly sweep away the country’s many problems and suddenly lift Pakistan to the glory it deserved.
There was little scrutiny of the plausibility of his promises. It was enough that someone was making 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 fitful periods of civilian rule in the country, 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 confident English and Oxford University education, could provide a useful civilian veneer as it clung to the main levers of power.
The 2018 election that thrust Khan into the prime minister’s house was marred by many of the “irregularities” that his supporters now complain of: a former prime minister in prison, a tilted electoral playing field, intimidation of candidates, and a late-night burst of creative arithmetic.
During his three and a half years in government, Khan proved a disappointment to his supporters and a danger to his critics and opponents. His cabinet was full of familiar, shop-worn faces, including his foreign minister and interior minister, plucked from the same ruling elite that he had railed against. None of the dreams that he promised materialized. The economy shambled on modestly, with a few new welfarist schemes rolled out.
What did change was the repression. Working closely with the military, the opposition was hurled behind bars, the raucous media was tamed, civil society was stifled, and ethnicity-based social movements were crushed. Khan turned his campaign rhetoric into vicious demagogy, taunting his jailed opponents, blaming rape victims for “wearing very few clothes” and hailing the Taliban in Afghanistan for “breaking the shackles of slavery.”
Yet his exit from power changed everything—and gave him a chance to play the national hero again. By late 2021, Khan’s relationship with the powerful generals he relied upon had grown strained. He had gotten close to the then-intelligence chief, Lieut. Gen. Faiz Hameed, and refused to replace him. There were fears among the military high command that the two men were furtively colluding to entrench each other in power for the next decade.
Pakistan’s military prides itself on its unity, and it will not abide civilian meddling with its upper ranks. In April 2022, then-army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa pulled his support from Khan, leaving him vulnerable to a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.
In scenes that some observers likened to a revolutionary moment, Khan’s supporters took to the streets to protest his ouster. The generals made a fatal miscalculation: Unpopularity in government doesn’t mean unpopularity in opposition. Khan became a magnet for sympathy, even for those who detest his politics. He has been implicated in roughly 200 cases, each as preposterous as the other, including accusations of so-called blasphemy, terrorism, sedition, and even illegal marriage.
At one point, an Orwellian order was issued to ensure that his name could not be mentioned on television. With every trumped-up charge raised, every protest crushed, and every Khan supporter detained or harassed, the sense of injustice deepened. This is no longer about Khan or his divisive politics, but whether Pakistan’s weak and battered democracy can survive.
Last week’s vote shows that it can. For one thing, the old tactics to suppress people’s voices no longer work. Khan’s tech-savvy supporters spurned every obstacle thrown in their path. They replaced videos of Khan himself with artificial intelligence-generated images of him reading speeches written from prison. They defied bans of public gatherings with digital rallies. The attempts to confuse voters with a bewildering array of independent candidates and symbols were demystified through constituency-customized WhatsApp groups. And the suspicious shift in election results may yet be challenged in the courts with the evidence that Khan’s supporters have assiduously gathered.
When it comes to future elections, the demographics are unstoppable: Pakistan’s population of 240 million people is set to grow to more than 400 million by 2050, according to the U.N. Population Fund. There are good reasons to fear another Khan government. He appears to only value democracy to the extent that it provides a procedural path to power. If he ever returns to office, he may seek to build a one-man state around him.
But that’s no reason to deny his supporters their constitutional right. Nor are they about to stop claiming it. The repression has only hardened their resolve. Even if they’re denied a government of their choice this time, what about next time, when there are even more young voters? At some point, something will have to give.
Pakistan’s voters are no longer prepared to act out roles 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 matters between votes and offers more than a mirage on election day.
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