Beneath huge photographs hanging on the wall of imprisoned former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Naila Khan Marwat cheered with dozens of young volunteers on election night every time counts on television channels suggested their candidate was in the lead.
She then returned to her laptop to compile complaints from candidates about alleged violations of election rules, compiled with 50 other young women to deliver to party lawyers launching legal challenges.
Marwat, 26, worked into the early hours of Friday at the party headquarters in Pakistan’s capital, closely following the results, a more confusing task than usual after supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf of Khan’s former hero were banned from running as PTI candidates and using the party’s symbol of the cricket bat. They had to run as independents.
“We have memorized all the symbols and all the names of our candidates,” said Marwat, a law student. “We know every candidate and every symbol.”
Pakistan voted Thursday in a critical general election as it struggles to recover from an economic crisis and combat violence in a deeply polarized political environment.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared victory on Friday, saying his party had become the largest and he would talk to other groups to form a coalition government.
The final results were unclear due to an unusual delay in counting, but independents, most backed by the PTI, represented the largest group with 92 of the 225 seats counted at 1600 GMT, performing much better than expected. expected and taking many by surprise.
Khan was ousted from power in 2022, jailed in August and has been banned from politics for several years over a series of criminal and corruption charges.
The PTI’s strong showing suggests a possible protest element spurring turnout and lasting resilience in support for Khan, analysts said. If the independents cannot form a government on their own, their large numbers could make Pakistan more unstable, they fear.
PTI supporters said the playing field was unfair, including a one-day outage in mobile services during the election for security reasons after a series of militant attacks. The PTI relies heavily on its social media presence, including automated responses on social media that helped citizens find their polling stations and PTI-backed candidates.
Pakistan’s election commission has said it will investigate allegations of rape.
“The PTI is definitely here to stay. They may have hollowed it out and reduced it to size, but… its support base remains large and loyal,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “Khan remains a force to be reckoned with, even from his cell.”
Young and long-term supporters
That support base, at odds with the army’s powerful generals, has been dealing with military-backed repression. The party alleges that the crackdown accelerated before Thursday’s vote when the military tried to keep it out of the race, a charge the military denies.
Some analysts and voters have said public perception of military involvement in politics may have driven Khan’s supporters to the polls, along with frustration over months of soaring inflation and anger over the three prison sentences Khan has received.
“One of the reasons the military may be concerned is that there are signs of some genuine popular support,” said Maya Tudor, an associate professor at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, adding that the suspension of mobile services on election day, after authorities had assured people that there would be no general communications breakdowns, was a possible sign of concern.
Marwat, the law student, said she joined the PTI in 2016 and cast her first vote in 2018, attracted by its leader, whom she considered “loyal” to Pakistan. Khan’s sentences galvanized her and many of her colleagues, she said.
“Haven’t you seen other great leaders? Like Nelson Mandela?… There are so many great leaders who have been in prison and are suffering a lot,” he said. “But things change.”
Elections in Pakistan have long been marred by accusations of rigging and imprisonment of political figures. While the turbulence is not new, analysts and supporters say the PTI’s responsive campaign that transcends demographics is.
With its sports celebrity and social media presence, the PTI is also popular among Pakistan’s huge youth population, which grows with each election cycle. The Dawn newspaper estimated that Pakistan added 10 million since the 2018 elections.
One of them, software engineering student Nayaba Akhtar, 21, said she was inspired to vote for a PTI-backed independent.
“It feels great,” he said. “I am sad that Imran Khan is not here, but I am happy that my first vote is for Imran Khan.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated channel.)