ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Pakistan: Imran Khan's Absence Looms Large Amidst Election Campaigns

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Published
World
7 min read
story-hero-img
i
Aa
Aa
Small
Aa
Medium
Aa
Large

In Lahore’s bustling Old City, the stronghold of the Sharif family's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN), milk shop owner Rafiq Butt, who is one of the many fans of cricketer and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, is amazed by the absence of posters of Khan’s political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in his neighborhood. “It feels like they are not even contesting the election. There are even posters of independent candidates here but not that of PTI or Khan.” Butt is one of the many who are witnessing the sudden absence of promotional materials of PTI or of Imran Khan. 

As Pakistan gears up for another of its irregular general elections, this time electing its 16th General Assembly, the absence of Imran Khan cannot be more searing. Khan, who was sentenced to a cumulative 31 years of jail in three different cases, is the country’s most popular political leader in recent times. His adventures and run-ins with Pakistan’s powerful army establishment, however, have rendered him absent from the political arena.

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Delhi Gate in Lahore covered by pictures of Hamza Shahbaz Sharif of PMLN, Lahore, February 1, 2024

(Photo: Author)

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Nawaz all over in Lahore's Walled City, Lahore, February 1, 2024

(Photo: Author)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

With Imran Khan in jail, it is the presence of his political rival Nawaz Sharif that looms large over Lahore and other major Pakistani cities.

Near the famous clock tower in Faisalabad, the only posters visible are that of Nawaz and his PMLN candidates. “Here it is clearly the sher (tiger – the election symbol of PMLN) that leads. The PTI was a strong outfit till last year but recent activities by Khan have made him an unwanted entity,” claims Ijaz Rashid, a PMLN member. It is a far cry from the last election in 2018 when Khan’s party won 149 seats and managed to gain 31.82% of the total vote share. 

Supporters of Khan’s PTI have been complaining on social media that they are facing crackdowns and suffering a throttling of political space to campaign.

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

PMLN banners featuring Nawaz Sharif and the party’s tiger symbol, Lahore, January 28, 2024

(Photo: Author)

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

PMLN posters and banners featuring Nawaz Sharif and the party’s tiger symbol, Lahore, January 28, 2024

(Photo: Author)

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

A rare sight of Imran Khan posters in Lahore's Anarkali Bazar, Lahore, February 5, 2024

(Photo: Author)

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

PMLN banners featuring the party’s tiger symbol, Lahore, February 5, 2024

(Photo: Author)

 “I have personally seen posters of the PTI being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week. You can find some random posters inside lanes and streets but to see them on main roads is a little difficult,” says Imran Hamid, a resident of Lahore’s Shera Kot area. Hamid, who drives a car for Careem, a ridesharing app popular in Pakistan, believes that Khan has a massive support base amongst the youth and that “all these cases against him are making people angry. There could be a chance that they come out in large numbers and vote for him out of sympathy.”

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Multiple party posters, including one of a PTI candidate using an airplane symbol, Lahore, February 4, 2024.

(Photo: Author)

Pakistan’s vote percentage has always been low. The highest vote percentage received was over 63% in the 1970 general election when Pakistan also comprised the region of the erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. In the 2018 election, only 51% of votes were polled. 

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Posters at Lahore's Chuburji monument, Lahore, February 1, 2024

(Photo: Author)

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Another PMLN candidate poster, Lahore, January 28, 2024

(Photo: Author)

One factor that may act to deter voting and reduce the vote for the PTI could be the barring of the cricket bat symbol associated with Khan, who was the captain of the Pakistan national team during the 1980s and early 90s, most notably winning the Cricket World Cup in 1992. 

On December 22, however, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) barred the PTI from using their bat symbol, alleging that the party has not conducted intra-party elections and that this has made the election symbol inaccessible to them. The lack of an election symbol has hurt the party. According to PTI party worker Aslam Parvez, “This was a major setback. We have gone to the courts against it but without our symbol, we will suffer. Most Pakistanis will be confused. They associate the party with the symbol.”  

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Some candidates have had to use the election symbol of cricket bails and stumps, some have used a tennis racket, and others an airplane. “Most Pakistanis are still illiterate and cannot read properly. So, election symbols were a necessity for people to identify the parties they wanted to vote for. With that gone, it’s become extremely difficult for them,” explains a PTI social media team member who has requested anonymity.

Senior Analyst Farah Zia stresses how the barring of the symbol reflects the alarming political climate. “It's probably the worst election that we have seen in our lifetime. It has no pretension of it being a free and fair election. Earlier other parties also were forced to change their election symbol. This disenfranchised voters. Now this party, which is the most popular party, has been denominated.” Zia, however, is hopeful. “The young voters, who make up 18% of the voters can make an impact.”

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Poster of PTI candidate Salman Akram Raja near Lawrence Garden, Lahore, January 30, 2024

(Photo: Author)

Many do not see the election as a necessary democratic activity. Popstar and political activist Jawad Ahmed, who leads the Barabari Party Pakistan (BPP) has decided to field 31 candidates for this election. “The purpose of our party is to develop an idea among the people that more middle-class and ground-level people should rise. In Pakistan, there is a problem of dynastic politics and many make parties to become Prime Ministers. Imran Khan did the same,” said Ahmed. He added that Khan had offered him to join the PTI in 2013 “but I did not need fame and did not want to be Prime Minister.”

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

On the situation faced by the PTI, Ahmed stated that “Khan has done a lot of disservice to the nation. He has done politics of religion and exploited people. He used to polish the boots of General Bajwa (Pakistan’s former army chief) and even called him Super King once. If you come to power after polishing boots and not sit or talk with democratic people, you will have to suffer the consequences. If you do boot polish, you will be treated like how lords deal with servants.”

Ahmed however expanded that the curbing of campaigning of  PTI should not happen. “Any entity should not intrude in the democratic setup.” 

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Poster of Jawad Ahmed and his Barabari Party Pakistan behind an autorickshaw, Lahore, February 5, 2024.

(Photo: Author)

Despite the problems faced, many PTI members have found interesting ways to bypass the curb. On February 4 a large number of PTI supporters assembled at Poonch Road in Lahore’s Samanabad. A group of young men on motorbikes conducted a sudden campaign when they led a cavalcade shouting slogans in support of Khan and his PTI. “In our neighborhoods, PTI members are doing door-to-door campaigning and giving away pamphlets after prayers in the local mosque. We have had to find new methods as we aren't allowed to hold proper political jalsas” explained one of the riders, Imran Hamid. 

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Inconspicuous Imran Khan graffiti on a concrete pillar, Lahore, February 5, 2024

(Photo: Author)

An interesting campaigning technique used by the PTI is the selling of Imran Khan face masks. PTI supporters claim on X that they have received massive demand for the masks which have been selling out. 

The party has also used AI to deliver speeches using notes given by Khan to his lawyers, in which Khan, as ‘Prisoner No. 804’, calls out his supporters to come out in large numbers.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Social media platforms have also been used with digital rallies being conducted on TikTok and Khan’s Facebook page featuring a chatbot providing information about local candidates for the February polls.

"I have personally seen PTI posters being taken down by the municipal authorities just last week," says Imran Hamid.

Many such graffitis of Imran Khan have appeared on the walls of Lahore, February 1, 2024

(Photo: Author)

Amidst the challenges and controversies surrounding the upcoming election, one thing remains certain: the resilience of political activism in Pakistan. From the streets of Lahore to the digital realm, the spirit of democracy perseveres, as citizens and political parties alike adapt to unconventional circumstances. As the nation prepares to cast its votes, the absence of familiar faces and symbols underscores the need for innovative approaches to engage voters and ensure their voices are heard. In this dynamic landscape, the true test of democracy lies not just in the outcome of the election, but in the collective determination to uphold its principles against all odds.

(The author is a freelance writer and Odissi dancer based in London. She is an alumnus of SOAS University of London where she studied South Asian Area Studies, focusing on the politics of culture in India and the diaspora.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
Read More
×
×