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Discontent and Defiance on the Road to Pakistan’s Election

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The highway is the most politically charged slice of a politically turbulent country. It winds 180 miles from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, through the fertile plains of Punjab Province to Lahore, the nation’s cultural and political heart.

For centuries, it was known only as a sliver of the Grand Trunk Road, Asia’s longest and oldest thoroughfare, linking traders in Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent. But in Pakistan, this stretch of the smog-drenched highway has become the stage for major rallies and protests led by nearly every famed civilian leader the country has had.

As Pakistan heads into national elections on Thursday, the road is buzzing. Politics dominates the chatter between its vendors and rickshaw drivers, their conversations seeped in a culture of conspiracy, cults of political personality and the problems of entrenched military control.

Nearly every day, hundreds fill the street — its overpasses plastered in green, red and white political posters — to rally for their side. Many more, their preferred party effectively disbanded amid a military crackdown, quietly curse the authorities before an election widely viewed as one of the least credible in the country’s history.

The newsstand just off the main highway in Gujar Khan is little more than a metal chair with newspapers fanned out carefully in a circle. Men gathered around the stand, chatting as they drank their morning tea and electric rickshaws rumbled by. Every day, the papers arrive with a new political advertisement splashed across their front page, said the vendor, Abdul Rahim, 60. But he has not been swayed by any of their catchy slogans or artful headshots.

Like many people across Pakistan, he has become fed up with the country’s political system. After former Prime Minister Imran Khan ran afoul of the country’s powerful military and was ousted by Parliament in 2022, infighting seemed to consume the country’s political and military leaders. All the while, people like Mr. Rahim were getting crushed by the worst economic crisis in Pakistan’s recent history, which sent inflation soaring to nearly 40 percent last year, a record high.

“For five years, I’ve been worrying about how to put food on the table — that’s all I’ve spent my time thinking about,” Mr. Rahim said.

Three governments, led by three different parties, have been in power since inflation began to surge in 2019. None were able to put the economy back on track, Mr. Rahim and some men gathered around the stand explained.

“The rulers are becoming richer, their children are becoming richer and we are becoming poorer every day,” Abid Hussein, 57, a nearby fruit stall vendor, piped in. “This is the worst period in my lifetime in Pakistan.”

The fliers are hidden at major intersections in Jhelum, wedged between the fruits and sunglasses of vendors’ carts and surreptitiously handed out to passers-by. They have a photo of Mr. Khan in the top left corner along with his party’s new slogan: “We will take revenge with the vote.”

Most of the campaigning for Mr. Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., has taken place in these shadows after the military started a monthslong intimidation campaign.

“They are working to crush the party. But they can’t because the party is in the hearts of the people,” the provincial assembly candidate in Jhelum, Yasir Mehmood Qureshi, said as he stood in a large, shaded yard surrounded by around two dozen supporters.

The military’s crackdown was designed to sideline the populist Mr. Khan, but most analysts say it has instead increased his support. While his popularity had plummeted as the economy declined in his last months in office, he now has a cultlike following. Supporters see him — and by extension themselves — as wronged by the military leaders who they believe orchestrated his ouster.

“We are frustrated,” one P.T.I. supporter, Momin Khan, 25, said. “Everyone is angry.”

The young men sat on a dead patch of grass at the edge of a field in Wazirabad, half-watching a cricket match. Bored with the game, Umer Malik, 28, pulled out his phone and began scrolling through TikTok. Within a few seconds, there was a video showing a P.T.I. gathering with the words “Vote Only Khan,” another mocking the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or P.M.L.N., the party seen as favored by the military in this election, and one slow-motion shot of Mr. Khan walking through a crowd.

“Every third video is about political stuff,” Mr. Malik muttered.

Mr. Malik and his friends had been captivated by the flood of political content created by P.T.I. in the past few years. The videos explained in layman’s language how Pakistan’s military had kept an iron grip on power. They taught the history of the military’s several coups. They slammed the generals for Mr. Khan’s ouster.

That content, outside the reach of state censorship, had stirred a political awakening for their generation, which makes up around half of the country’s electorate. While young people in Punjab would once take voting instructions from elders who had been promised projects like new roads by party leaders, they are now casting votes for whomever they prefer.

“The old era is over,” said Abid Mehar, 34, whose parents are staunch P.M.L.N. voters, while he supports P.T.I. “We will vote by our conscience.”

It was nearly midnight when the leaders of P.M.L.N. appeared at the rally in Gujranwala. Hundreds of party supporters crammed into rows upon rows of seats, cheering and clapping as fireworks lit up the sky. Political songs blasted from speakers: “Nawaz Sharif, he will build Punjab!” “Nawaz Sharif, he will save the country!”

Mr. Sharif’s near-certain return to power has offered a redemption of sorts. He has served as prime minister three times — never completing a single term. Twice he was ousted after falling out with the military. Then, in 2017, he was toppled by corruption allegations.

But for a military bent on gutting P.T.I., Mr. Sharif was seen as perhaps the only politician who could counter Mr. Khan’s popular appeal. After spending four years in exile, Mr. Sharif was allowed to return to the country in October to shore up P.M.L.N.’s support.

“When he returned, it revived the party,” said Ijaz Khan Ballu, a P.M.L.N. campaigner in Gujranwala. “All these votes for P.M.L.N. are really votes for Nawaz Sharif.”

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