As Pakistan officially enters the election year, with just barely ten days ahead of the elections, the political landscape is changing its colour every passing day. Politics in the country is going through a strange phase: on the one hand, the establishment is flexing its muscle and exerting its power to keep Imran Khan away from the upcoming elections, while on the other, an attempt is made to rebrand the image of Nawaz Sharif and bring him back to power with an expectation that he would behave.
Since the time the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) lost its hold on power through vote of no confidence in April 2022, after a three-and-half-years term at the centre, there is a continuous effort to dismantle the party. 9 May incidents proved to be the final nail that completely shattered the PTI, with most of its top leaders either exiting the party or put behind jail including Imran Khan. This article looks into how PTI is adapting to the changing nature of politics in Pakistan and its survival tactics amid pressures from the establishment, the courts and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
The PTI party supremo, the inimitable Imran Khan, is behind the bars and he is technically not the chief of the PTI anymore. He nominated Barrister Gohar Khan as the chairman of the PTI in a bid to save the iconic party symbol, ‘bat’, and as a last hope to sail the party into the elections on 8 February 2024. After the cat and mouse chase, with Peshawar High Court restoring the decision to keep the symbol intact for PTI, the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld the 22 December decision of the ECP depriving the party of its bat symbol. Now the party nominees will go into elections as independent candidates with teapot, bottle and bowl etc. as election symbols. Following the verdict, Barrister Gohar Khan announced that all candidates would contest elections independently.
It has to be noted that the PTI is a youth-driven and youth-led party that came into existence on 25 April 1996 (after Imran won the ICC Cricket Championship in 1992 for Pakistan) with a manifesto advocating change and revolution. The party symbol bat, as held by its members, stands for change (tbadeeli) and seeks to bring about a country-wide movement against corruption. Now, with the bat symbol gone, the party cadres feel powerless. Imran Khan in an op-ed for the famous weekly magazine Economist wrote that if the bat symbol has been taken away from PTI and elections are contested without the symbol it indicates that elections are not 'free and fair'.
With relentless crackdown on the party, its leaders and supporters, the political space for the party has shrunk further. But with a strong social media team and increasing sympathy for Imran Khan, the party has shifted its campaigns to the virtual space. In December 2023, the party organised its first virtual Jalsa on various social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter featuring speeches from PTI leaders and supporters from within and outside Pakistan. Interestingly, artificial intelligence was used to craft Imran Khan’s speech out of the notes he sent from jail and it was played during the Jalsa in which he basically asked for votes.
According to PTI’s official Twitter account, the PTI official YouTube channel had more than 82,000 live viewers, while the Twitter stream had over 40,000 viewers. It has to be noted that the PTI’s virtual Jalsa was part of PTI’s election campaign, which aimed to mobilize its supporters and reach out to new voters. However, the country faced disruptions in internet service that coincided with the virtual Jalsa of the party.
According to analysts, the government made an attempt to disrupt even the online Jalsa of the party. In the first week of January 2024, the PTI held a fundraising telethon in order to raise money for the party from supporters within as well as outside of Pakistan (the overseas Pakistani). Despite widespread internet disruptions, the PTI said that its virtual fundraiser telethon had raised $264,000 in less than three hours. The PTI social media posts discussed the achievements of the party while it was in power for three and half years. They also directly connected to the donors mostly overseas Pakistani (UK, Africa, and US etc.) who donated live. A pre-recorded message from Imran Khan was played in which he appealed for donations and asked viewers to be part of the Haqiqi Azadi Jihad (struggle for freedom) of the PTI.
PTI can be given full marks for creatively using the virtual space but the real challenge is to convert its social media strength into votes on the polling day and if they fail to do so then they will not be able to leave a mark in the political battlefield. With the exit of the most popular faces of the party, the PTI party is mostly run by lawyers and now with a faceless and bat-less party going into the elections as independent candidates have further complicated the future of the otherwise most popular party in the country. The newly formed party Istehkam-e-Pakistan party (IPP) headed by Jahangir Tareen, once a close alliance of Imran Khan, has now claimed that most independent Members of National Assembly (MNA’s) and Members of Provincial Assembly (MPA’s) of the PTI will join the IPP post-election if they win. This has sparked the rumours of a possible horse trading post elections and unfortunately there is no way to prevent such a possibility.
Overall, there is no political future for the PTI and its chief Imran Khan in the upcoming general elections. There is no way Imran Khan can come out of jail before the election, even if ironically, his popularity has increased since the time he was put behind jails and being tried in more than two hundred cases. At the same time, although the road is all clear for Nawaz Sharif to be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, experts believe that despite having what many perceive to be behind-the-scenes support from the powers to be, it may not be all smooth sailing for Mr. Sharif, due to the PTI factor.
Dr Zainab Akhter is working as a Research Analyst in a Project at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed here are her own.