Prisoner No 804: Imran Khan turns to AI to fight Pakistan’s election from jail

Barred from next week’s vote, former prime minister taps chatbots and TikTok to energise his party’s supporters

As Imran Khan languishes in a Pakistani jail, the former prime minister’s embattled party is turning to unconventional methods including artificial intelligence and rallies on TikTok to mobilise his millions of passionate supporters ahead of next week’s general election.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is using AI voice generation to deliver his speeches from notes passed to his lawyers. The PTI is hosting digital rallies on TikTok and has a chatbot on Khan’s Facebook page that provides information about local candidates for the February 8th polls. And supporters are using “Prisoner No 804″, Khan’s jail ID, as a rallying call to protest military-enforced censorship of posters that feature him.

“If you come out in large numbers, there is no way we can lose,” the 71-year-old former cricketer, who was this week sentenced by separate courts to prison terms of 10 and 14 years, assured supporters in a recent speech delivered via AI. “Do not fear anyone.”

The AI speeches are part of an insurgent campaign by the PTI, who were favourites to win the election before being devastated by arrests, media blackouts and restrictions on rallies following a rift with Pakistan’s powerful army.


Khan’s supporters say the future of democracy in the nuclear-armed country of 240 million is at stake as they take on a political and military establishment that has long dominated Pakistan.

“Imran’s voice and Imran’s image has by and large been the greatest mobiliser for the PTI,” said Azeema Cheema, director of Verso Consulting, an Islamabad-based research group. “They’re using every tool they possibly can to replicate [it] in the public sphere.”

“Imran is still extremely, extremely popular” and a lot of people “are quite ready to go down and vote”, she added.

The odds are nonetheless stacked against the PTI and Khan, who is not himself eligible to stand after a separate conviction in a corruption case last year.

Khan denies all the allegations, calling them a pretext to stop him running. The conviction “was only done to diminish the hopes of the people before the elections”, said Zulfiqar Bukhari, a senior PTI member. “This is only going to push people to come out on February 8th and vote in higher numbers, because those sitting on the fence will have a lot more resentment.”

With control of the 336-seat lower house of parliament in play, the PTI will be up against a political old-guard believed to be running with the military’s support.

This includes Nawaz Sharif, a veteran former prime minister who returned from exile last year – following his own 2018 corruption conviction – only for the supreme court to remove the legal obstacles to his candidacy in what analysts described as a “backroom deal”.

Murtaza Solangi, information minister in Pakistan’s current caretaker government, dismissed allegations that it was stopping the PTI from mobilising as “propaganda”. “There is no truth in these charges,” he said, insisting the police had “acted under the law”.

The PTI, founded in 1996 by the World Cup-winning cricketer Khan, won the most parliamentary seats in the 2018 election with the tacit support of the army, which controls many political decisions from behind the scenes.

But the relationship soured while Khan was in office and he was removed in a no-confidence vote in 2022, going on to fiercely criticise the military and even blaming an assassination attempt that year on an intelligence official.

Tensions culminated mid-last year with the mass arrests of PTI supporters and leaders, many of whom then quit the party under duress.

Since then, the PTI has largely been denied official permission to hold campaign events, with police last week arresting dozens of Khan’s supporters at an election rally in Karachi. The Election Commission in December blocked the PTI from using its well-known cricket bat electoral symbol, a crucial tool in a country where many illiterate voters rely on such symbols to identify candidates on their ballot papers.

Unable to run a traditional campaign, the PTI is relying on novel tactics. “We’ve never had a political rally without Imran Khan, physical or virtual,” said Jibran Ilyas, a US-based volunteer who directs the PTI’s social media strategy. “All the innovations are necessities.”

The party broadcast Khan’s first AI speech in December, using US-based start-up ElevenLabs’ voice generation tool to replicate his distinctive baritone. It also held its first TikTok rally last month and is launching its election manifesto online this week.

“Our campaign continues now only on social media. Our surprise, however, is that there are so many people who are following us there,” said Zarqa Suharwardy Taimur, a PTI senator. “That is where we are at an advantage.”

Yet there are signs the party is struggling to stay united without Khan’s physical presence. In many constituencies, multiple candidates are claiming to be representing the former prime minister, which political analysts said risked splitting the PTI vote.

But Sher Khan, a 30-year-old rickshaw driver who had plastered a poster for Prisoner No 804 on the back of his vehicle, said he had little doubt where the population’s loyalty lay. “The government is trying to block Imran Khan from getting elected,” he said. “On the streets, the mood is in favour of the PTI.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily - Find the latest episode here