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With Imran Khan in jail, Pakistan gears up for election most voters don't trust

Workers in Karachi, Pakistan, screen-print banners for political party campaigns ahead of general elections, which take place on Thursday.  (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters - image credit)
Workers in Karachi, Pakistan, screen-print banners for political party campaigns ahead of general elections, which take place on Thursday. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters - image credit)

At the top of a winding road in the hills of Islamabad, deep in the backyard of a private home, dozens of people gather and wait for a political rally to start, waving a few red and green flags.

Days before a national election, this is how the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is campaigning following a crackdown from authorities: quietly.

"I am doing my best, but there is hindrance on behalf of the police, on behalf of the administration," said Shoaib Shaheen, a candidate and PTI's former lawyer, as he arrived at the gathering.

"Threats to our candidates, and threats to our supporters and their businesses," he said. "But we are still surviving."

Salimah Shivji/CBC
Salimah Shivji/CBC

Many of his fellow candidates have gone into hiding, worried about police raids and arrests. Some have been addressing rallies through video broadcasts recorded at unknown locations rather than attending in person.

Their leader, former prime minister Imran Khan, who was ousted from power by parliament in April 2022 after falling out with the country's military, is sitting in jail, barred from running in the election.

The party has also been prohibited from using its widely recognized cricket bat symbol — a nod to Khan's former life as a cricket star — on the campaign trail, a decree that is crippling in a country where 40 per cent of the population can't read. PTI candidates are essentially being forced to run as independents, which likely further harms the party's chances.

WATCH | Politician Imran Khan handed jail sentence just days before Pakistan election:

The tactics against the PTI are part of a familiar playbook used by Pakistan's powerful military over decades to sideline parties and politicians they no longer support. But experts said this latest crackdown is unusually brazen.

"We haven't seen something like this before," said Imtiaz Gul, a political analyst and the executive director of the Islamabad-based think-tank the Center for Research and Security Studies.

"In a democratic regression and recession, this is the least credible election," said Gul, where getting rid of Khan "has trumped concern for the country's image and democracy."

Salimah Shivji/CBC
Salimah Shivji/CBC

Gul warned of long-lasting consequences in this country of 241 million, including a deepening lack of trust in state institutions and continued instability.

Campaigning from jail 

In the week before Pakistanis were set to head to the polls, Khan was sentenced by separate courts to prison terms of 10 and 14 years, respectively, on charges of leaking state secrets and illegally selling state gifts.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

Those rulings were followed quickly by a seven-year sentence for what a local court deemed an unlawful marriage to his current wife. Khan has denied all the charges against him, calling them politically motivated.

Despite the legal challenges, the PTI is determined to bring Khan's message to his millions of supporters, using technology like artificial intelligence to harness the populist politician's appeal.

The party has turned to an AI voice generator to deliver Khan's words, which are jotted down in his jail cell and passed on to his lawyer.

In the videos, Khan exhorts his supporters to go to the polls Thursday and gives out detailed instructions for voters to find their local candidates.

"Be brave," Khan, using an AI voice generator, said in one of the videos. "There is no question of defeat."

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf/YouTube
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf/YouTube

Even behind bars, the former cricket star is still considered the country's most popular politician.

A familiar face back in the running  

But the man widely expected to win the election is Nawaz Sharif, who has already served as Pakistan's prime minister three times.

Sharif himself fell out of favour with the army in 2017, which enabled Khan's victory, but the tables have turned — again.

Pakistani courts overturned Sharif's former corruption convictions and a ban on contesting elections, clearing his path to victory in this election, in what analysts describe as a backroom deal with army generals.

WATCH | Pakistan prepares for election amid security concerns:

Pakistan's military, which ruled directly for more than three decades, has always maintained it does not interfere in the country's politics, and denies being a part of any clampdown on political parties.

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party (PMLN) has focused on a message of creating jobs, in a country where the economy is in crisis and inflation has flirted with 40 per cent. Electricity and gas bills have increased sharply as part of conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund to save Pakistan from default.

Hannah McKay/Reuters
Hannah McKay/Reuters

The economic message resonated with many, mostly older voters who attended a rally this week in Punjab province, delighted to see Sharif back in town.

"If Nawaz Sharif wins, Pakistan will be more developed and successful," said 70-year-old Mehmood Abbasi.

"If [Sharif] comes to power, in my opinion, it will be good for the nation, it will be good for our country," said Qaseem Ahmed, 21, who added that he felt lucky to be able to see the three-time prime minister speak in person.

Another familiar face in the election, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is a member of one of Pakistan's most high-profile political dynasties and leader of the left-leaning Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

The son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, Bhutto Zardari served as the country's foreign minister in the brief coalition government that ruled after Khan was removed from power.

Pessimism ahead of voting day

On the streets of the capital, there was little enthusiasm for an election that seems — to many — pre-determined.

"In my life, this is the first election that I've seen with not much activity and no interest from the public," said Shoukat Abbasi, 40, who runs a perfume shop at Aabpara, one of Islamabad's oldest markets.

"This is not an election, it is a selection," the shopkeeper said. "There is one party that is punished on a regular basis and another party is favoured," he said, referring to the PTI and PMLN, respectively.

A Gallup poll released Tuesday backed up that sentiment, with seven out of 10 Pakistanis polled reporting they lack faith in the fairness of their elections.

Reuters
Reuters

The same poll reported that a record-high 70 per cent of the country said economic conditions where they live are getting worse.

Abassi shrugged as he mentioned the recent rise in his electricity and gas bills.

"In this situation, what can people do?"

The same discouraged outlook came through in Tahseen Anjum's voice as the 46-year-old browsed the market.

She said she was heartbroken about the state of the country's politics but that she would still vote on Thursday.

"I don't trust the election, it's not a fair fight," she said. "The man we would have voted for, he is in jail."