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Many Pakistanis appear to defy crackdown on popular leader as they vote in elections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In a year where dozens of countries will have elections, today was Pakistan's turn, and it was a doozy. Cellphone networks were shut off. People complained of voting irregularities. Militants attacked some candidates. And one popular leader who was not on the ballot essentially campaigned for his proxies via an AI-generated version of himself. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Tens of millions of people cast their vote, with more than 5,000 candidates vying for just over 260 seats. But analyst Omar Waraich says this vote was really about one man.

OMAR WARAICH: This election is all about one man, who is sitting in jail, and about stopping him from being able to become prime minister again - that's Imran Khan.

HADID: Imran Khan - arguably Pakistan's most popular politician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: He was ousted from power nearly two years ago after falling out with the army, the country's most powerful institution. Just last week, Khan was sentenced in three different cases and is now serving 14 years in jail. His party was not allowed to contest elections, so they fought back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: Khan's allies ran as independents, flooding social media with songs urging people to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: They campaigned on TikTok as authorities cracked down on their real-life meetings, and his supporters used AI to generate a Khan persona who urged his supporters to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AI-GENERATED VOICE: (As Imran Khan, non-English language spoken).

HADID: So they did, despite candidates of most parties reporting irregularities. One man says he voted for a Khan ally. He's not sure his vote will be counted, but he wanted to make a point.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And whoever gets elected should represent the country. But unfortunately, I think it's not happening here.

HADID: One food anthropologist, Nilofer Afridi Qazi, says her friends are voting for Khan out of frustration.

NILOFER AFRIDI QAZI: This is a complete - you know, like, a farce.

HADID: Qazi doesn't like Khan, a conservative who was often accused of being sexist. But she says people are voting for Khan's allies to protest the crackdown against him, his party, his supporters and what they see as the violation of the democratic process itself.

QAZI: There is such a push for everyone who is so upset to just vote PTI. All the feminists, progressives - they are so horrified. I mean, it is openly, blatantly, unabashedly, you know, tilted.

HADID: But there's plenty of Pakistanis who blame Khan for the country's instability.

MOHAMMAD KASHIF: It was such a failure - the project.

HADID: Voter Mohammad Kashif describes Khan as a failure - a man who emboldened Pakistan's army to push back against their democratic achievements. And other Pakistanis say they're staying home.

Analysts say it's unlikely any party would get a majority. The political system skews to coalitions. Instead, they expect a different former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to become the next leader of a coalition that's likely to be easily swayed by the army. But Sharif and the army had bad blood. Analysts say the military engineered Sharif's ouster from power in 2017. He was banned from politics, jailed and then went into exile. But observers say, since the army turned on Khan, they've softened on Sharif. It's a point not lost on Khan's allies.

ZULFI BUKHARI: We just need to sit back and watch the show.

HADID: This is Zulfi Bukhari.

BUKHARI: You'll see, in 18 months, everything will be in turmoil again, and Imran Khan will be, you know, once again, in the top runner of being the prime minister.

HADID: Khan's down, he says, but not out - never - in Pakistan.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINI SONG, "SELFISH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.