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Pakistan elections: How Imran Khan decisively overcame the odds to win from jail

His supporters turned out in droves, but amid allegations of vote-rigging, the old guard is still clinging to power
A supporter of jailed former leader Imran Khan wears a mask bearing his likeness during protests against alleged vote-rigging in Karachi, Pakistan, on 11 February 2024 (Asif Hassan/AFP)
A supporter of jailed former leader Imran Khan wears a mask bearing his likeness during protests against alleged vote-rigging in Karachi, Pakistan, on 11 February 2024 (Asif Hassan/AFP)

Last Thursday, 8 February, will be remembered as the day of people’s power in the political history of Pakistan

The country’s 12th general elections resulted in a big win for former prime minister, Imran Khan, and candidates affiliated with him. Khan, who is currently in prison, has for the past two years been on the receiving end of the Pakistani state’s wrath, but still he emerged triumphant.

The electoral field had been designed to diminish any chances for Khan’s success, with his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party’s top leadership arrested or forced to switch to other parties. Heavy restrictions were placed on campaigning for the PTI, and its electoral symbol was banned.

Instead, Khan’s party relied on social media and online campaigning to educate and mobilise voters. The strategy was vindicated on election day, as throngs of Khan’s supporters came out to avenge his political incarceration by voting. 

The atmosphere of fear and intimidation did not deter the former leader’s support base. This was surprising, as even those who had hinted at a massive surge in Khan’s support were doubtful that it would translate into votes. 

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Indeed, it would appear that the country’s political landscape is experiencing a seismic shift. Khan’s electoral revolution, spurred by his unwavering resilience from a prison cell, quashed the state’s attempts to make him politically irrelevant. 

Yet, as the enormous scale of Khan’s victory became clear, suggesting his affiliated candidates had secured the most seats in parliament, the containment operation began. Results slowed down, and allegations of electoral manipulation swiftly emerged, as the PTI said election officers had “falsely changed” the results of more than fifty seats, acccording to PTI.

Dynasties under threat

A particularly stunning example emerged in Lahore. With Khan out of the way and his own relationship with the military establishment restored, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had expected to sail to victory - but as results started coming in and PTI candidates were leading by large margins, an electoral torrent threatened to wipe out Pakistan’s national and local political dynasties.

Although Sharif himself ultimately claimed to have won his seat in Lahore, an official tally shared by his party showed bizarre discrepancies, including a result of zero votes for more than a dozen candidates, which would indicate they had not even voted for themselves.

The elections marked an epic humiliation not only for Pakistan’s traditional political class, but also for the country’s power stakeholders, who believed they had wiped Khan off the political map and were now expecting him to beg for mercy. 

All attempts by the state apparatus to weaken Khan's support base and reverse the politicisation of Pakistan's urban and rural middle classes have failed

What ensued was a massive damage control operation, triggering allegations of result manipulation in key regions. Still, even if Khan’s party was robbed in places such as Punjab and Karachi, the PTI swept his traditional power base, the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and it retains significant representation in other areas. 

Against the wishes of the military establishment, the elections once again gave Khan a seat at the political table, even as he remains in jail. 

This is just the latest episode in a saga that has been unfolding since April 2022, when Khan was removed as the country’s prime minister after a lengthy parliamentary battle, which pitted him against Pakistan’s powerful political and military establishment. But as Khan was dethroned and subsequently faced persecution, his support base only increased. 

This happened amid public acceptance of Khan’s narrative that he is a victim of a US-approved regime change operation, in addition to the failure of Khan’s successor government to deliver on the economic front, and ongoing political oppression of PTI supporters.

The path forward

All attempts by the state apparatus to weaken Khan’s support base and reverse the politicisation of Pakistan’s urban and rural middle classes have failed, thanks to Khan’s perseverance in the face of adversity. 

This doesn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes. Khan’s decision last year to dissolve provincial assemblies in a push for early elections only empowered his opponents and restricted the political space for his own party. And unlike other political outfits in Pakistan, Khan didn’t attempt to cultivate meaningful political linkages outside of the country. Lacking any foreign patronage, he was always on his own in confrontations with the military.

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Still, Khan has managed to prevail over opposition forces on the strength of his political conviction, and the unwavering support of his followers. 

The confrontation between Khan and Pakistan’s military, however, is far from over. All the tricks in the book will be utilised to keep him and his party out of power. But the electoral earthquake of 8 February has shown that the country’s masses are aligned with Khan, and any further attempts to undermine him politically may prove to be little more than stopgap measures, with no real impact on Khan’s political standing. 

Pakistan’s political landscape has been decisively altered by an imprisoned Khan, thus putting him among the ranks of such charismatic figures as Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh and Turkey’s Adnan Menderes. Today, the country’s politics revolves around his persona, and with Sharif’s defeat, there is no national-level figure who can genuinely challenge Khan. Former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of Nawaz, is likely to be reappointed to head a coalition government that lacks popular legitimacy.

The country’s political status quo and dominant power structures are beginning to crumble. Indeed, Khan might be still in jail, but his ultimate political triumph is now just a matter of time. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Umer Karim is a researcher at the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham and a SEPAD Project fellow at Lancaster University’s Richardson Institute.
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