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A preview of Pakistan's election, which is focused on a man who isn't on the ballot


It's election day in Pakistan tomorrow and analysts say the man not on the ballot will be front of mind for voters. On the line is NPR's international correspondent Diaa Hadid. She covers Pakistan from her base in Mumbai. Hi, Diaa.


PFEIFFER: Would you give us the broad view first and tell us why these elections in Pakistan on Thursday matter?

HADID: Well, they matter because Pakistan's stability is important for the world. It's a nuclear-armed power in a strategic corner. Its neighbors include China, Afghanistan and Iran. But for the past few years, it hasn't been that stable. Inflation's been running hot. The country's been battered by droughts and floods made worse by climate change. And there's been a step up in militant attacks. Just today, more than 25 people were killed in bombings near offices of candidates.

PFEIFFER: Are these elections expected to change anything?

HADID: Analysts say it's unlikely. They say this election is about stopping one man. Have a listen here to Omar Waraich. He's a political analyst and a former correspondent.

OMAR WARAICH: This election is all about one man, who is sitting in jail, and about stopping him from being able to become prime minister again. That's Imran Khan.

HADID: Imran Khan. The backstory here is important. Imran Khan's a sporting hero who became a conservative populist. He won the last elections four years ago and became PM. Pakistan's most powerful institution, the army, was seen as paving the way for him to get to power by cracking down on his opponents. But they fell out, Khan was ousted, he was arrested last May. And his followers rioted on army installations. That was unprecedented in Pakistan, where there's a lot of deference to the military. Just last week, Khan was sentenced in three cases, with jail time totaling more than 30 years. And his party isn't allowed to run in elections, so Khan's allies are running as independents.

PFEIFFER: So because of everything Khan has been through, how much has he faded from public view?

HADID: He hasn't faded at all. In fact, he appears to command a fiercely loyal base. And he's kept them fired up by appearing in constant communication even though he's behind bars. You see, his party uses generative AI to create these Khan-like speeches that go viral on social media. This is Khan's close ally, Zulfikar

ZULFI BUKHARI: Imran Khan has a distinctive voice, He has a distinctive character, he has a distinctive look. When he writes something down or dictates something to his lawyers in prison, the social media team decided that we would AI-generate his voice and create the message via that.

HADID: And that has got him around those communication restrictions. But because authorities have also cracked down on Khan supporters when they gather, they now do campaign rallies on TikTok. They've developed a bot that tells Pakistanis which independent is running for Khan in their district. And that's important in a country where people have really low literacy rates.

PFEIFFER: By the way, hearing that use of AI to generate Khan's voice - it's just amazing to hear how that technology is being used. So Diaa, Khan is not on the ballot, but you're saying he sort of is on the ballot? Who else, though, could win this election?

HADID: Analysts say no party on the ballot is expected to win a majority. They expect the next government will be a coalition, a coalition that's weak and easily influenced by the military.

PFEIFFER: From everything you're describing, it sounds like this is not the end of Khan quite yet.

HADID: Goodness, no. There's a lot of hurly-burly in Pakistani politics, and today's jailed politician could be tomorrow's favorite son. You could just ask the man who may become prime minister this time around, Nawaz Sharif. He was thrown out of power in 2017, analysts say in a move engineered by the military. And now they appear to be helping him get back into that job.

PFEIFFER: Such complicated Pakistani politics. That's NPR's Diaa Hadid. Thank you.

HADID: You're welcome, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORMEGA SONG, "ALL I NEED IS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.