Pakistani cricketing legend turned world leader Imran Khan is wildly popular in his constituency and ancestral home in Mianwali, but political posters that line the street do not bear his face and flag and also deny flying his colours. A relentless crack down widely attributed to Pakistan’s powerful military has seen him and his political party Pakistan Tehreek-Insaaf (PTI) almost being erased from election campaign ahead of vote.
Khan, currently in jail is facing dozens of legal challenges, is barred from contesting elections on February 8, 2024 because of a graft conviction cases he claims politically motivated. Across the country, the PTI has been obstructed from holding rallies and heavily censored media is restricted in its coverage of the opposition, pushing the party’s campaign online. Dozens of candidates nationwide have had their nomination papers rejected by the electoral commission.
Harassment faced by PTI leaders
As per the voice of sixty-one-year-old Jamal Ahsan Khan, who is standing for the PTI in Mianwali in place of Imran Khan, says, “Our Party workers are facing harassment and personally I have received many death threats. “Throughout my life, I have never witnessed an election as intense and threatening as this one.
Like many other party candidates Ahsan Khan has been in near hiding build up to elections unable to hold meetings or distribute leaflets. It feels disheartening that as a candidate of Pakistan’s leading political party, I am unable to conduct my campaign in a meaningful way, he said.
Earlier this month, the PTI suffered a crucial blow when the Supreme Court banned it from contesting elections with its electoral symbol, the cricket bat. In a country where millions of people cannot read and write, the symbols are crucial to the voters to identify their preferred candidate and party. The election commission instead ordered Ahsan Khan to use a bottle, an emblem viewed with disdained in rural areas as it is associated with alcohol.
Ahsan Khan’s rival from Mianwali, Obaid Ullah Khan is indifferent to the punishment that is being meted out to his rival political party. Unlike PTI candidates, Ullah Khan, who is standing for Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) meets openly with villagers whose leaders assure him of support of the entire community in hope of future favours. The PML-N is the party of another prime minister Nawaz Sharif who was jailed in 2018 and later forced into a self-imposed exile.
Despite being sidelined from contesting elections, the voters have not lost trust for Imran Khan. A computer science student Hanzala Bin Shakeel will be voting for the first time and is making no secret of his choice. “I will vote for Imran Khan because he is the one who really cares about his country while the others prioritise their personal interests.
Imran Khan’s Political Career
It was from Mianwali, largely rural district of central Punjab region, that Imran Khan had made his career and was elected three times as MP. The PTI national victory in 2018, driven by its promises to put an end to corruption and the family dynasties which have ruled the country for generations, propelled him to prime minister. In Mianwali, where he notably built a hospital and a university, the 71-year-old “is not just a political figure, he is a hero”, Rana Amjad Iqbal, editor-in-chief of local newspaper Nawa-e-Sharar, or the Daily Spark, said.
Mr. Khan was widely believed to have been backed by the military in his rise to power, but became emboldened during his leadership and began to push against the control of the mighty generals. Eventually, he lost their favor and was ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in 2022 after dozens of his MPs defected.
His subsequent arrest in May 2023 brought supporters onto the streets who protested against military symbols — sparking the start of a widespread crackdown against PTI. Thousands of supporters were arrested and around 100 halves from Mianwali are awaiting trial before military courts, while senior party leaders were detained and forced underground before defecting in their dozens.