'Guerrilla Session': How Imran Khan is fighting Pakistan's elections from prison | elections

Lahore, Pakistan — It was a moment of discovery for Gibran Elias.

Like most members of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Ilyas was overwhelmed by a sense of uncertainty. Their charismatic leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, has been in prison for months. Senior party officials are in hiding. Campaigning in any form for the February 8 elections for the National Assembly and provincial legislatures has appeared difficult, if not nearly impossible.

Then PTI's Chicago social media leader had an idea. It was in December when Ilyas and his team sent a letter to Khan in prison, through the party's lawyers.

We have seen repression against our party. We saw how depressed people were. We have seen some of our marches thwarted by the authorities. Elias told Al Jazeera: “It made us think, what if we tried to hold a ‘virtual gathering’ and avoid this ban on us.”

“he [Khan] It wasn't clear what a virtual gathering would mean, and we thought we'd do something over Zoom. “But we explained what we would do, we would show testimonials from PTI branches globally, and when we explained our idea, he gave the green light to go ahead,” the social media leader added.

On December 17, PTI held what could be considered the first “virtual rally” in Pakistan, using a platform called StreamYard, which reached an audience of over five million across various platforms.

Elias and his team did not stop there. They had another surprise.

“When we go to a PTI rally, regardless of other speakers, people are there to listen to our leader. And with him being in jail for three months, people didn’t hear him at all. So instead, we used artificial intelligence [artificial intelligence] “To create his own soundtrack and play it in the virtual gathering,” Elias said.

Khan's four-minute speech was created using artificial intelligence, interspersed with clips from his previous speeches, as well as a video montage, and was based on handwritten notes Khan sent to Ilyas and his team from prison.

Elias says the response has been very positive.

It was an example of how the PTI remains the most technologically savvy party in the country. As the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party faces a devastating crackdown, with it being banned from even using the party's symbol – a cricket bat – at the polls on Thursday, it is digital tools that are helping it compete in an election that many critics have called unfair. Even geometrically.

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“We are a very driven people, which has been given to us by the leadership of the party, especially our leader Khan [the social media team] Freedom to decide how to work. “This allows us to react quickly and stay ahead of the game,” Elias added.

After Khan was removed from power in April 2022, his party continued to protest the dismissal, which it accuses of a US-led conspiracy, in collusion with the powerful Pakistani military establishment. The crackdown intensified last year, when Khan was arrested in May in a corruption case, bringing thousands of PTI supporters to the streets.

They went on a rampage demanding the release of their leaders and damaged government buildings and military installations, including the home of a senior commander in the eastern city of Lahore. Retaliation by the military, once seen as having supported Khan to power in 2018, was swift and harsh. Thousands of PTI workers were arrested, party leaders were forced to leave the party and, ultimately, Khan himself was imprisoned in August last year, where he has remained ever since.

While Khan remains behind bars, receiving three convictions in multiple cases last week, the PTI movement has continued to persevere, despite the obstacles.

When the Election Commission banned the party's use of a symbol in elections, it meant that each PTI candidate would have to contest with a different symbol – and without the party name – like independent candidates.

With the literacy rate falling below 60% for the entire country, symbols or pictorial identifiers remain the most important markers used by the public to identify their candidate or party of choice.

Elias said the party decided to intensify guerrilla tactics.

“Within one night, our team came up with the idea of ​​creating an online portal where users can enter their constituency number and they will receive the candidate’s name and code,” he said.

Traditionally, election campaigns in Pakistan involve candidates and their teams holding meetings on street corners, visiting voters door to door to spread their message, and speaking to voters and supporters at large rallies.

They put up banners and posters, and distributed leaflets containing their agendas. Others, with more financial resources, also advertise in mainstream media including television and print. With most Pakistani state institutions cracking down on them, these options are limited for PTI this time around, party leaders say.

“We had to be smart and think on our feet to change this negativity and use it as strength,” says Taimur Jhagra, a senior PTI leader, who is vying for a provincial seat from Peshawar, the capital of northwestern Khyber Agency. Pakhtunkhwa, where the party has been in power since 2013.

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“When my posters were torn in a neighborhood of Peshawar, I shot a video with these torn posters, asked my team to upload it on our social media platforms and let the torn posters stay in place to let them speak for themselves.” Jagra told Al Jazeera.

As a result, Jagra says, the video enabled him to attract a large number of people to what was supposed to be just a small meeting in another neighborhood of his constituency.

“It was a guerrilla session,” Jagra said. “We had planned to hold a small event, with barely 100 people expected to attend. But we ended up with more than a few thousand people, which speaks volumes about the amount of support we have and how willing people are to be part of our campaign,” the former regional minister added.

Another PTI leader, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, is vying for a National Assembly seat from Lahore. He said that his campaign team relied on the WhatsApp application to communicate with voters.

“We have a channel through which we can share information and spread our messages. Using WhatsApp, we have short, quick meetings at someone’s home and then quickly disperse,” he added.

Technology journalist Ramsha Jahangir says Khan and his team have always used social media because it helps reinforce the message that he is “available” to the average citizen.

“In the face of censorship, the PTI movement is at the forefront of finding alternative ways to reach its supporters and spread their message. These proven strategies are led by educated supporters with global stature,” Jahangir told Al Jazeera.

Commenting on the broader trend of increasing reliance on digital means to spread political messages, Jahangir said technology was “writing a new playbook” for politics.

“We have seen PTI making politics more accessible through virtual sessions, AI recordings, and chatbots,” she added. “This has not only helped them circumvent censorship, but has also helped them engage youth, including those from rural areas.” Or surrounding cities in the country.

PTI's Ilyas agreed with this view and said the party was keenly aware of the demographics of voters in the country and was keen to adapt and develop its messages to reach new audiences.

“When you have more than 60% of voters in the 18- to 45-year-old age group, you have to look for ways to engage them. “This is why we have an active presence on platforms like TikTok and YouTube, and why we have so far held two events on TikTok, attended by millions of people,” the Chicago-based strategist said.

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Pakistan's other major political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People's Party, have been slow to adapt to the changing landscape.

In contrast to the PTI, the two parties faced little resistance from state institutions as they campaigned publicly. For them, the focus remained on following tried and tested formulas, although supplemented with data and technology.

Former Information Minister and PML-N Information Secretary Marium Aurangzeb said that while traditional methods in mass communication campaigns cannot be undermined, the “massive inflation of the digital space” adds another element to campaign awareness initiatives.

“Our campaign messaging framework was supported by AI-driven active social listening across the entire digital media landscape. This gave us extremely valuable data insights that helped us build a high-impact campaign,” she told Al Jazeera.

Aurangzeb said modern data-driven technologies have allowed for “separate understanding” at multiple levels including demographic, social and economic divides.

The former minister added: “We provided a personalized message, targeting a specific section of voters, instead of blanket distribution of generalized messages across the board.”

For the PTI movement, Ilyas said the challenge now is to convert supporters into active voters on February 8.

Ilyas said his team has created WhatsApp channels for every constituency in Pakistan where party followers can get information about voting. He said another “important innovation” was the chatbot created by PTI on Imran Khan's Facebook profile.

“From the way you deal with people, it looks like you are talking to Imran Khan. You send your leader a message asking him about your constituency, and he replies to you where to go, urging you to vote. It makes people feel like they are talking to him directly,” Ilyas explained.

“The response on Facebook is huge and we are very hopeful that this will translate into votes. I think people will vote because they have not been able to join election campaigns or protests due to this atmosphere of repression. Voting will be our way to vent our frustrations.”

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