Imran Khan: The Pendulum of Power and Politics

When the Pakistani government censored the media, Imran Khan’s party took to TikTok to post campaign videos. With political rallies barred, the protesters turned to virtual gatherings online. And when Khan himself encountered imprisonment, his supporters used artificial intelligence to simulate his voice in speeches.

Khan’s message resonated with millions of frustrated Pakistanis disillusioned by the country’s economic crisis and entrenched political dynasties. He explained that Pakistan had been declining for decades and claimed that only he could restore its former greatness.

The recent polls were a surprising upset in Pakistani politics, with Khan’s party securing more seats in Parliament than any other. This marks a significant departure from the political strategy employed by the powerful military, which had worked to sideline Khan since his falling out with the country’s generals and subsequent ousting in 2022. It also highlights the influence of Khan’s populist rhetoric and the country’s internet-savvy youth. Both of they are reshaping politics in Pakistan.

As Khan’s and Sharif’s parties, led by the three-time former PM, vie to win over lawmakers and form a government. If Khan’s party succeeds—a prospect that many analysts view as unlikely—it would be the first time in Pakistan’s history that a civilian government is led by a party at odds with the military and whose leader is incarcerated.

Regardless of the outcome, Khan’s party has demonstrated its enduring political presence, leveraging the dissatisfaction of Pakistan’s youth. According to Adam Weinstein, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, “The old playbook for shaping the country’s politics is outdated; social media and youth mobilization have become game-changers.”

For nearly half of Pakistan’s history, the military has directly ruled the country. The few civilian governments were typically led by a select few, including Khan’s rival in the recent election, Nawaz Sharif, who gained support from the military. Those leaders aligned with the military and established political parties centered around their family dynasties. This ensured that party leadership remained within a close-knit circle and political power was maintained. However, in recent years, the country’s young population, which now makes up approximately half of the electorate, has become increasingly frustrated with this system, according to analysts.

Zaigham Khan, a political analyst based in Islamabad, stated that young people felt excluded from Pakistan’s political system because “someone from the family will always secure the top position.” This frustration with the old parties’ reluctance to change has led to a void that Khan has filled successfully.

While Imran Khan initially gained political recognition with military support, he capitalized on the longing for change among young people. This was to solidify his political base independently of the military After his removal from office. His party ran social media campaigns that reached young people and sparked a political awareness among their generation.

In viral videos, Khan criticized the country’s military leaders, attributing his removal from power in 2022 to them. He described how the military controlled politics from the shadows, operating as a “deep state,” and even alleged collusion between the US and Pakistani officials in his ouster. Khan portrayed himself as a reformer who would bring about change.

His message resonated with young people throughout the country.

Usman Saeed, 36, standing outside a polling station in Lahore after voting for P.T.I. candidates, declared, “I’m voting for change. I’m fed up with the current system of political parties that have been governing the country.” He added, “They (military) have imprisoned Imran Khan — that’s the main issue — it demonstrates that the establishment is managing everything.”

While few of these voters remembered the dissatisfaction with Khan’s last months in office, during which his popularity plummeted due to soaring inflation. Many analysts believe that if Khan had completed his term, his party would not have won the subsequent general elections.

However, even after his removal from office, the country’s military leaders seemed to underestimate the shifting dynamics of the political landscape. As Imran Khan made a political comeback, the generals resorted to their previous tactics to sideline him.

Authorities lodged numerous charges against Khan, resulting in four separate sentences totaling 34 years in prison. They arrested hundreds of his supporters. And, for the first time, expanded their reach, targeting influential Pakistanis, including those with close connections to the military. The intimidation campaign against Mr. Imran Khan only ended up increasing support for him. The crackdown, widely publicized on social media, exposed the military’s heavy-handed interference in politics and turned more people against them. Many who voted for Mr. Khan’s party did so simply to defy the generals.

Now, as the scramble to form a new government continues, there are widespread allegations of military manipulation of vote counts. PTI has promised to challenge the results rigged by the military, leading to potentially lengthy court battles. On Sunday, thousands of Imran Khan’s supporters protested across the country, expressing their anger over the allegations of election fraud. Unfortunately, the police aggression came heavy upon protests.

The political standoff has put the country on edge, as Pakistan’s history is marked by military coups and mass unrest. While the election results indicate many Pakistanis are rejecting the broken system, the country is still far from achieving stability.

Bilal Gilani, the executive director of Gallup Pakistan, raises an important question: As these political parties gain more power, will they truly act democratically or become more authoritarian in their ideologies? Will they exclude those who didn’t vote for them?