The Pakistan elections were neither free nor fair – the counting was suspended when it became clear that Imran Khan’s supporters were getting a majority. A number of opinion polls put Khan’s popularity at around 60% to 80%. However, before the election the military and its allied political parties had waged repressive campaigns against the PTI and the courts had caved in to their pressure after the US helped orchestrate Imran Khan’s ouster.

Unknown people and masked government officials were snatching the nomination papers of PTI candidates as soon as they went to file them, thereby preventing them from filing to run before the deadline. Of the candidates who did manage to file, those who were not arrested faced frequent police raids on their homes.

In Pakistan true power lies with its military, which has ruled Pakistan for over half its history and today acts as kingmaker. As one former top US diplomat in Islamabad said: “When we have crisis we don’t call the Prime Minister—we call the Chief of Army Staff.”

Imran Khan was even jailed in an attempt to silence him, and his name was scrubbed from mainstream media and his nomination papers rejected.

“Of course, there is no level playing field and no way this election can be seen as ‘free and fair,’” says Patricia Gossman, Associate Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.

Khan’s colleagues were barred from contesting under their party’s name, and they weren’t even allowed to use its famous cricket bat symbol important in a country with wide illiteracy. Dozens of senior PTI leaders were put under pressure or even tortured into leaving the party, while many others who stayed in the party were arrested and have remained in jail. PTI candidates who managed to stand were prevented from holding rallies and their posters were systematically torn down.

The PTI refused to give up and fielded independent candidates and used many different tactics to get their message out and get people to vote — social media messaging, video screens hooked up in the middle of town squares, even AI-driven jailhouse speeches from Khan.

The military and its allies may have been concerned that many young voters were registering and seemed to be registering as independents, possibly to vote for Khan’s party. On election day, the internet was suddenly shut off in and in many places, mobile phone services were suspended. By suspending mobile phone service on election day, the government and military created an enabling environment for rigging. This denied many Pakistanis the right to vote for who they choose.

This was aimed at harming Khan’s party, since it relies more heavily on young supporters who are more likely to use their phones to canvass for votes and share information about other election-related activities. The same logic holds true for the internet — the shutdown hurt Khan voters more. There were internet blackouts in multiple regions across the country, these disruptions following “months of digital censorship targeting the political opposition.”

Army Chief of Staff General Asim Munir decided to bring back three-times former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from exile, quash his corruption conviction and repeal his lifetime ban from politics to pave the way for a historic fourth stint in power.

Sharif’s record on the economy is poor and reputation for graft legendary. Since the turn of the millennium, per capita GDP in Pakistan has risen by an average of just 1% annually. Khan averaged at 6% for his last two years in office, despite headwinds such as the pandemic.