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Many Pakistani voters brave violence as they vote in federal, state elections

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Pakistanis are headed to the polls today, and it's quite an endeavor.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. This is one of the most populous nations on Earth, so here are some of the numbers. Tens of millions of people will be eligible to vote at more than 90,000 polling stations, guarded by more than 700,000 police officers and soldiers, who are needed because dozens of people have been killed in bombings and attacks in the hours leading up to the election.

FADEL: NPR's Diaa Hadid joins us now. She covers Pakistan from her base in Mumbai. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So a big election for a big country. How is it going so far?

HADID: Well, we have only a somewhat shaky picture because authorities have disrupted cellular services, citing security concerns, you know, as you mentioned, because there's been these deadly attacks on polling booths and candidates. And militant attacks like this have really been on the rise in the past two years. But rights groups worry that there might be a more nefarious purpose because there was a crackdown ahead of these elections that targeted Imran Khan, who's arguably Pakistan's most popular leader. He's the former PM. He was ousted from power after he fell out with the military, and that's Pakistan's most powerful institution.

FADEL: OK, Imran Khan - former cricket player turned populist politician. But I understand he's not even on the ballot today, right?

HADID: That's right. He's not on the ballot. He's in prison serving multiple sentences. His party isn't even allowed to participate in the polls. And yet, these elections are still very much about him. His party has tried to work around these obstacles. His allies are running as independents. Chatbots tell citizens who to vote for in the elections. They're running campaign rallies on TikTok. And they're using generative AI to create Khan-like personas to use on social media, where he urges his base to vote. One of Khan's allies, Taimur Jhagra, explained it to me like this.

TAIMUR JHAGRA: What we've had is AI-generated messages of Imran Khan so that in the absence of Imran Khan's pictures, Imran Khan's voice being deliberately taken away from the people, that it acts as a source of motivation to his voters.

FADEL: OK, so AI-generated messages of Khan are being used. He's not on the ballot. Is this actually working?

HADID: It seems so. Video messaging is key in Pakistan because literacy rates are really low. And this is an appeal to young voters. They're a huge bloc. They get their information from social media, and they're a key base for Khan's party. And so in Pakistan's second largest city, Lahore, most people we've spoken to say that they are voting for independents aligned with Khan. Some folks are even warning each other on WhatsApp groups that if they don't go to vote, someone else will fill in their ballot for them. But it's hard to imagine Khan's allies returning to government in any form because the army is so opposed to Khan.

FADEL: So Khan - seems pretty clear he's not going to be the prime minister. So who might be?

HADID: The analysts I've been speaking to expect a different former prime minister to come to power. His name is Nawaz Sharif. One analyst, Niaz Murtaza, tells me he expects to see a governing coalition that's weak and easily swayed by the military.

NIAZ MURTAZA: It's going to be a really hobbled government with the army running the show from behind.

HADID: But here's the thing. Pakistani politics is cyclical. Today's jailed politician is tomorrow's favorite. So one ally of Khan tells me, even if they're excluded from power in this election cycle, they're going to watch and wait because they know how Pakistan operates.

FADEL: That's NPR's Diaa Hadid. Thanks, Diaa.

HADID: Thank you, Leila. 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.