‘He’s fighting for our future’: Pakistan’s young voters rally behind Imran Khan – The Guardian

Attempts to jail and harass the cricketer turned politician have only strengthened his support among young people
In a recent video address to tens of thousands of viewers, Imran Khan waved a piece of paper at the camera bearing the result of a survey of voters. “You see, 70% of the population is now standing with our party,” the politician claimed.
The authenticity of the data was unclear – Khan is known for hyperbole – but it is widely acknowledged Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party are enjoying a period of unparalleled popularity that has been building since April last year when he was toppled in a vote of no confidence, having served less than four years as prime minister. The last credible poll, back in March, put his popularity at 61%.
The loyalty felt to Khan among voters has been keenly on display over the past two weeks. After his dramatic arrest last week from an Islamabad courtroom by almost 100 paramilitary officers, the country erupted in violent unrest.
Though the events of the riots are now disputed – Khan alleges they were a conspiracy to discredit and crack down on his party members, the government says the violence was orchestrated by PTI’s leaders – the ability for Khan to mobilise large-scale protest on the streets was clear. As Khan returned to his home in Lahore after being released on court orders, he was accompanied by thousands of supporters.
“Leaders like Khan are born once in a century,” said Aftab Ahmed, 18, who left school to serve as a volunteer in Khan’s security force last year. “He is one of the few leaders in the world who wants to build a country based on equality and justice. I am sure Khan will win this fight.”
One of Khan’s greatest strengths has been his popularity among young voters, who exceed 125 million and account for 44.36% of registered voters. Over the years, he has utilised social media to build up a vast following of young people who see him as the face of “naya [new] Pakistan” and a change from the old dynasties who have ruled Pakistan for decades.
“The youth are following Khan; he is fighting for us and our future,” said Azra, 20, a student at the University of Karachi. “Khan might have done some corruption but not like the politicians who have done it for decades.”
She said recent attempts to jail and harass Khan had only strengthened his support among young voters. “Khan has put his life in danger because of us and our prosperity.”
Since his release from police custody, Khan has made almost daily addresses from his home, broadcast on YouTube and Twitter, calling for early elections and proclaiming himself as Pakistan’s anti-establishment saviour with increasingly critical tirades against the military and government. During every appearance there are tens of thousands of viewers.
Khan alleges his popularity among the masses is at the root of his legal troubles, with more than 100 cases against him. The former prime minister is calling for elections to take place on a provincial and national level. He alleges the attempts to detain him and a crackdown on his party are part of a plan by Pakistan’s powerful political establishment and the ruling coalition government, led by the prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, “to stop PTI forming the next government”. The military leadership and the Sharif government has hit back, accusing Khan of supporting violence and terrorism.
Yet Khan also faces an impending dilemma. While his anti-military rhetoric has galvanised popular support on the streets, it has also alienated many key members of his party who have faced harassment or have longstanding ties with the army establishment.
On Tuesday, Shireen Mazari, Khan’s former human rights minister, became the latest high-profile PTI leader to quit the party after being arrested twice, joining a dozen others who have left in the past week. Khan blamed the army for pressuring his party members into “forced divorces”.
When Khan, 70, entered Pakistani politics in 1996 as a retired but still celebrated cricket captain with a playboy reputation, he was shunned for his attempts to challenge the status quo. But over the years the charismatic populist who thrived on celebrity grew popular among the middle class, who approved of his drive against corruption and ambitious promises to strengthen democracy and the rule of law. Meanwhile, his embrace of radically conservative Islam and anti-western rhetoric, particularly against the US, garnered him support among influential religious conservatives.
Malik Farooq, 28, a software engineer in Lahore, said it was Khan’s “vision” for Pakistan that had drawn his support . “Khan does not come from a political dynasty and he does not want to build any dynasty. He is in politics to save us from these corrupt families.”
In 2018, Khan was elected after promising that he alone could fix Pakistan’s deep-rooted problems. But though he was personally popular, his majority was slim and it came amid allegations it had been rigged in his favour by the powerful military establishment, whose decades-long grip on power was seen as responsible for the rampant corruption and lack of accountability that Khan had vowed to stamp out. Several opposition politicians from the dynasties he had openly criticised had also jumped ship to join PTI and became Khan’s close aides, leading to allegations of hypocrisy.
Once in power, beholden to the military, most of Khan’s promised reforms never materialised. There was a clampdown on media freedom, extrajudicial abductions by military agencies continued and Pakistan fell further in the transparency index that measures corruption. The economy floundered and state spending soared, while his promises to shun the “lavish” lifestyles of former prime ministers did not become a reality, with Khan since accused of costing the country billions of rupees for his helicopter rides alone.
Amid economic strife and allegations of dysfunction, Khan’s support went into decline and it was at historical lows by April 2022. But it was Khan’s removal from power, after dozens of his own MPs defected and he lost a parliamentary vote of no confidence, that would revitalise his popularity.
Khan swiftly and loudly blamed a US-backed conspiracy for his removal as prime minister. Though the claim was debunked and the US denied it, it played well to rampant anti-US sentiment and riled up support, while his fervent conservative Islamic rhetoric also strengthened his populist support base.
Khan’s decision to turn against his former ally – Pakistan’s military establishment, accusing them of colluding with the west to bring him down – has also galvanised support among many who are tired of the decades of the army interfering in politics. In recent months, his populist, firebrand speeches against military leadership have drawn thousands on to the streets in support, and sympathy for him only strengthened after he was shot in the leg in November while at a rally, with Khan accusing the military chief of being behind a plot to assassinate him.
The economic crisis in Pakistan in recent months, with inflation at 36% and people dying in ration queues for food, has also helped Khan politically. The ruling coalition removed subsidies and implemented hikes in the price of food, fuel and power to try to secure a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and avoid default, which has made them unpopular among the masses.
Taseer Ali, 26, an electrical engineer, was among those who said he believed the US government and the military were involved in toppling Khan. “Khan is trustworthy and visionary,” he said. “Yes, Khan has changed his stance towards the army but he has seen the military’s real face and he knows them well. He has given us hope that he will change this rotten system.”


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