Pakistan elections Imran Khan39s party popular but stalled

Pakistan elections: Imran Khan's party popular but stalled

Nowhere in Pakistan is former Prime Minister Imran Khan as popular as in his Mianwali constituency. But even there, given the merciless repression, his party's victory in the parliamentary elections on February 8 is not guaranteed.

This largely rural district in the central province of Punjab is where the former star cricketer, currently imprisoned and disenfranchised, built his political career.

He was elected three times as MP from Mianwali, where his father's family comes from, although he himself was born and raised in the provincial capital, Lahore.

The election victory of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in 2018, driven by its promises to end corruption and the family dynasties that have ruled the country for half a century, had made the prime minister a trailblazer .

Imran Khan was deposed in April 2022 after losing favor with the army as he was suspected of favoring him in 2018.

In Mianwali, the 71-year-old former leader is not just a political figure, he is a hero, Rana Amjad Iqbal, editor-in-chief of local newspaper Daily Spark, noted to AFP.

But the real reason he is still in the game politically is his anti-establishment stance, he emphasizes.

Mr Khan's arrest last May angered his supporters, leading to violent protests. The authorities responded with massive arrests of PTI supporters and leaders.

The reprisals were particularly severe in Mianwali, where demonstrators damaged the entrance to a military base.

Activists are being harassed

Several hundred activists have been arrested, a large number of whom are still in prison and about fifty are due to appear in military courts, according to PTI.

“Our activists are being harassed and I personally have received death threats… In my entire life, I have never seen an election that was so tense and full of threats,” says Jamal Ahsan Khan, who was nominated by PTI to replace Imran Khan Mianwali- Candidate.

This supporter of the former prime minister has been in hiding since the start of the election campaign. The PTI has not been able to hold a meeting or distribute leaflets in his constituency. Less than two weeks before the election, it is impossible to find any trace of a party poster.

“It is disheartening that I cannot run a normal election campaign as the candidate of Pakistan's largest party,” notes Jamal Ahsan Khan. It is difficult to imagine that the election was free and transparent.

The applications of dozens of PTI officials were rejected across the country. Despite being forgotten by the media despite its leader's popularity, the party has to rely mainly on social networks.

In Pakistan, the primaries are usually characterized by great enthusiasm and excitement among the population. But this year the campaign is largely slow.

Obaid Ullah Khan, the candidate of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), was soundly defeated by Imran Khan in Mianwali in 2018 and is hardly moved by the treatment reserved for the PTI.

“When will this be justified if not now?” he said, referring to the events in May, which authorities equated with an attempted insurrection.

The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan in October after four years in exile in London, the PML-N, is the clear favorite in the election.

The former leader, who accused the army of orchestrating his ouster in 2017 to help elect Imran Khan, has since moved closer to the military, analysts said.

A bottle as an emblem

In Mianwali, the PML-N is campaigning freely. Obaid Ullah Khan toured the villages and collected signs of support.

Imran Khan “is still popular with the public, but he is unacceptable to the army,” said Ijaz Khan, a retired teacher who organized a public meeting in support of the PML-N.

In mid-January, the PTI suffered another blow when the Supreme Court banned it from participating in elections using its election symbol, the cricket bat.

In a country where sports are extremely popular and where millions of illiterate people have no other way to identify their candidate, this decision deprives PTI candidates of a crucial logo and also forces them to run independently.

In Mianwali, Jamal Ahsan Khan was given a bottle, an emblem frowned upon in rural areas because it is associated with alcohol.

Despite all this, the PTI remains confident that it can win in this constituency won by Imran Khan if the people mobilize and there are no irregularities on polling day.

Hanzala bin Shakeel, a 23-year-old computer science student, will vote for the first time and is making no secret of her choice. “I will vote for it [le parti d’Imran Khan], because he's the only one who really cares about this country; others put their personal interests first.”