Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been in prison since last August, but that hasn’t stopped him from addressing his supporters ahead of the country’s February 8 general elections.

On Saturday, he addressed his party’s virtual convention using artificial intelligence for the second time since December. An AI-generated voice resembling Khan read words he dictated to his visiting staff.

Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), is resorting to virtual gatherings because it is being barred, without legal justification, from convening in person.

So Khan and the PTI are killing two birds with one stone using digital technologies to overcome state suppression.

The Pakistani state, in response, is doubling down on digital repression. It shut down access to social media nationwide on Saturday, as it has done many times to obstruct local access to PTI online events.

The Specter of Khan

Pakistan’s de facto military government remains deeply insecure ahead of next month’s general elections. It has thrown the kitchen sink at Khan and his party — arrests, assassination attempts, sextortion, and more — only to find the ex-cricketer’s popularity remaining sky-high. The Pakistan Army, once partnered with Khan, is struggling to put this genie back in the bottle.

Khan’s political opponents too are worried. Gharidah Farooqi, a journalist aligned with Khan’s foes, interviewed more than two dozen potential voters on the streets of Sialkot — once a stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Virtually every person said they would vote for PTI.

Their reasons are many, but largely centered around the personality of Khan and a belief that the ex-cricketer and philanthropist is “sincere.” Many pointed toward the universal health program initiated by Khan, known as the Sehat Card. A particularly motivated voter said, “I’ll vote for Imran Khan. Whoever wants to arrest me can arrest me.” Another man who intends to vote for Khan said, “He’s a trustworthy man. The rest are dishonest frauds. They’ve destroyed Pakistan.”

Some also pointed toward Khan’s foreign policy and global leadership role. And that’s a note Khan hit on many times in his virtual address on Saturday. He said his political downfall began “when the military establishment became agitated” with his “push for an independent foreign policy” and his “refusal to provide bases” to the United States. Khan said, “I was categorical that we would be a friend to all, but we would not be anyone’s proxy for wars.”

Khan also spoke of his efforts to bring warring Muslim countries together and push for negotiated resolutions to conflicts like the one in Afghanistan.

On his own country’s future, Khan said Pakistan needs a “strong, truly representative, democratic government” and “a democratic framework governed by [the] rule of law and our constitution.”

As the symbol of Khan, public anger at the status quo, and Khan’s tech-savvy, motivated support base keep his party’s flame alive, next month’s vote may very well be a referendum on what type of Pakistan its people want.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.


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