PTI’s Digital and Covert Campaign to Bring Imran Khan Back to Power

Pakistan is gearing up for a crucial election on Feb 8, but one of the main contenders, former prime minister Imran Khan, is behind bars and facing multiple charges. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is also facing severe restrictions and obstacles from the authorities and the rival parties. How is PTI coping with these challenges and trying to mobilize its supporters?

According to Reuters, PTI is employing a two-pronged strategy of using generative AI technology and covert canvassing, often led by female teacher volunteers, to reach out to the voters and remind them of Khan’s charisma and vision.

AI-generated speeches

PTI has used generative AI software from US startup ElevenLabs to create footage of Khan, its founder, delivering speeches he conveyed to lawyers from his prison cell, urging supporters to turn out on election day. The party has also organized online rallies on social media that have been watched by several hundred thousand people at a time, according to YouTube data.

Khan, who was barred by a court from holding political office last year, is not the first Pakistani leader to be imprisoned during a campaign. But PTI’s ability to tap into new technology and the former cricketer’s personal popularity have kept him in the headlines.

PTI’s US-based social media lead Jibran Ilyas told Reuters that the party wanted to find a way to present Khan to the people, as they had never had a political rally without him. He said the party debated the misuse potential and decided to stick with audio AI only.

PTI also created an app that allows Facebook and WhatsApp users to find the party’s candidate in their constituency. Many voters had identified PTI with its cricket bat electoral symbol but the Election Commission recently banned PTI from using it on the technical grounds that it did not hold an internal leadership election. The decision means the PTI candidates are running without official party affiliation.

Covert canvassing

Besides the digital campaign, PTI is also relying on its grassroots workers and volunteers to knock on doors and distribute pamphlets. Reuters reported that a team of masked and headscarf-clad women, led by 25-year-old insurance company employee Komal Asghar, canvassed for Khan’s party in the eastern city of Lahore.

Asghar said the face and hair coverings — which not all the women usually wore — made it easier for them to canvass without attracting unwanted attention. The public perceives women as non-threatening, she said, making it less likely their campaigning would lead to conflict.

PTI’s Lahore-based organiser Naveed Gul said that posters were often taken down by authorities shortly after being put up, an accusation that Punjab police chief Usman Anwar called “malicious”. Reuters could not independently verify that PTI party material was taken down.

The ongoing crackdown boiled over on Jan 28, when PTI planned to hold nationwide rallies on a cool Sunday morning. But in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city, police and Khan’s backers violently clashed. Law enforcement fired tear gas shells, according to television footage. A police spokesperson said 72 arrests were made in the three days after the clashes.

Uncertain prospects

Khan was sentenced to ten years imprisonment on Jan 30 for leaking state secrets. He then received a 14-year sentence last Wednesday for illegally selling state gifts. And on Saturday, he was sentenced to seven years for unlawful marriage. He denies all charges and his lawyers say they plan to appeal.

The 71-year-old won the last election, in 2018, but was ousted in 2022 via parliamentary no-confidence motion. Interim Information Minister Murtaza Solangi told Reuters that PTI was only stopped from campaigning when it did not have the required permits or if supporters clashed with law enforcement.

Rights groups and rival politicians have accused Khan of undermining democratic norms when in power by cracking down on media and persecuting his opponents through the same anti-graft tribunal that sentenced him on Wednesday. PTI and Khan have called the allegations baseless.

No reliable polling is publicly available but PTI’s workers and independent analysts such as Madiha Afzal of the US-based Brookings Institution think-tank say Khan maintains strong support, especially among the nation’s large youth population. The voting age is 18 and more than two-thirds of the electorate is under 45.

Nonetheless, restrictions are likely to limit PTI’s ability to compete with rivals such as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by the frontrunner, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said Afzal. Nawaz returned from exile late last year and his corruption convictions and lifetime ban from politics were recently overturned by the Supreme Court. A PML-N spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“The major structural barriers to the PTI in this election … make it likely that the party will lose despite its popularity,” said Afzal, adding that Khan’s dedicated supporters meant it was too early to write off the party entirely.

PTI has not said who it will put forward as prime minister if it is victorious on Feb 8.

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