Followers of Jailed Khan Vow Covert Vote During Pakistan Polls

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Supporters of Imran Khan say they will take evasive measures to cast votes backing the jailed politician in Pakistan’s Thursday election, after a major crackdown against his party.

The South Asian nation’s poll has already been stained by allegations of pre-vote rigging, with Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party barred from contesting as a bloc, prevented from rallying and censored from the airwaves.

PTI voters say they anticipate polling-day interference and will deploy tactics to blend in with supporters of other parties.

“Flags and badges are for showing off, but the vote is from the heart,” said 22-year-old mobile phone salesman Barkat Ullah at an Islamabad market, explaining he would keep a low profile on election day.

“The objective is to vote.”

Surveys show 71-year-old Khan still has immense personal popularity despite the muzzling of his party, which has also had its websites blocked and helplines downed.

While PTI has been kept off the ballot, his supporters can still vote for Khan loyalists running as independents.

Avoiding Attention

In Pakistan, voters for each party often travel to polls together trailing party paraphernalia — making allegiances easily identifiable.

But 25-year-old first-time voter Waseem Ali said he would escort each family member “one by one, to avoid forming a crowd and grabbing attention”.

Nearby, Abdul Basit said he planned to travel to vote with supporters of the Awami National Party, which advocates for the rights of ethnic Pashtuns.

But when safely secluded in the polling booth the 28-year-old will stamp his vote for Khan’s PTI.

“I feel bad I can’t exercise my right to vote freely, but I am going to vote anyway,” he said.

PTI insists the establishment will have to carry out “massive” interference in order to tip the result against Khan.

“It may be advisable for (supporters) to hide their identity, their affiliation, to get to the polling station and cast their votes,” PTI information secretary Raoof Hasan told AFP on Tuesday.

“Getting to the polling stations is not going to be blocked for people who belong to any other political party.”

Khan enjoyed huge popular support when he became prime minister in 2018’s election with the backing of the military establishment.

He was ousted by an April 2022 no-confidence vote after falling out with the top brass, and claims they have since mounted a campaign to sideline him from the February 8 election.

The former cricketing legend has been jailed for months and barred from running, and was hit with a trio of fresh convictions and sentences last week.

Three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif has meanwhile emerged as the front runner, after analysts said he received the blessing of the military.

Monitors have told AFP the military establishment — which effectively has the power to make governments rise and fall — is presiding over Thursday’s vote with a heavy hand unprecedented in recent history.

How Many Are They Going To Stop?

Pakistan’s elections have historically been marred by accusations of interference.

“In recent years tactics have graduated from the crude stuffing of ballot boxes to ‘pre-poll rigging’ –- short-hand for denying candidates known to be out of favour with the military room to campaign freely,” Farzana Shaikh of the Chatham House think tank wrote last week.

Seven in 10 Pakistanis lack confidence in the integrity of their elections, polling agency Gallup said this week, noting the figure “ties previous highs” but “represents a significant regression in recent years”.

“Many now fear that the return of Sharif’s party can only be secured through unacceptably high levels of election engineering,” Shaikh said in her analysis.

In Islamabad, Hassan Ali pledged he would march towards his polling station to vote sporting PTI badges and flags, playing party songs.

“How many are they going to stop?” asked the 28-year-old. “I’m not scared of anyone.”

But if he’s turned away he “will join any other party’s crowd” to cast a vote backing Khan.

“The country is run by the people,” he insisted.

(This story has not been edited by News18 staff and is published from a syndicated news agency feed – AFP)

Sheen Kachroo

Sheen Kachroo is a Sub-Editor with News18.com. She writes on general news, politics, international news, and education. She holds a degree in History

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