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The ultra-high-tech development in Pakistan's parliamentary election

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A man who's come to symbolize the whiplash fortunes of Pakistan's civilian leaders has announced that he's started talks to form a coalition government, but his rival has announced victory through an AI-generated persona. To explain this ultra-high-tech development, we've called NPR's Diaa Hadid. She covers Pakistan from her base in Mumbai. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: What exactly happened today?

HADID: So this evening, Pakistan time, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced he'd deputize his brother, who's also a former prime minister, to start talks with smaller parties to try to form a coalition government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAWAZ SHARIF: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Sharif is delighted. He tells a crowd of thousands, I love you. I can see the light and the sparkle in your eyes.

PFEIFFER: So that sounds like a victory speech. But a rival of his also declared victory on behalf of his party. Is that what happened?

HADID: That's right. And the confusion is largely because these elections were marred by controversy from the get-go. The internet was cut off. There were allegations of fraud and vote rigging, including surrounding Nawaz Sharif's own victory. The United States, U.K., EU - they've all voiced their concerns. And arguably Pakistan's most popular leader, Imran Khan, was was not allowed to run. He's another former prime minister. Keep count. Analysts say he was ousted from power when he fell out with the country's powerful military. Now he's serving multiple jail terms. His party was also banned from running. So his allies contested as independents, and they've collectively won more seats than Nawaz Sharif's party so far. Deep breath. Khan has a loyal base. They were energized by an AI-generated version of Khan, created by his social media team, who urged them to go and vote. And that AI-generated Imran Khan persona also announced victory on behalf of his party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AI-GENERATED VOICE: (As Imran Khan, non-English language spoken).

HADID: And then that AI bot goes on to say, give a prayer of thanks, because despite all the repression, we won. Analysts tell me the military is unlikely to allow Khan or his allies to govern. So this likely - excuse me. This likely sets up the country for more instability. This is a nuclear-armed country. For years, it's been lurching from crisis to crisis. It's battered by climate change, militancy and even hunger.

PFEIFFER: So, Diaa, it sounds like, for now, you're saying that the next prime minister is likely to be the other guy, Nawaz Sharif. Tell us more about him.

HADID: Right. So the story of Nawaz Sharif is really the story of the push and pull between civilians and the army over who controls Pakistan. And it's never really that clean cut. You see; Sharif first rose to power with the help of a military dictator. He's been prime minister three times before, but he's had this long, fiery relationship with the army. He's been ousted from power twice, once in a military coup over two decades ago. And he fled into exile. Five years ago, he was ousted from power, analysts say at the military's behest. He was jailed on corruption charges and then managed to flee to London. But analysts say it appears that he cut a deal with the military and was able to return to Pakistan late last year. And now he's the favored son again. Analysts don't think this will last, nor do Khan's allies. One of them tells me they're already preparing for the next elections. And maybe then Khan's own fortunes might change, and that's what they hope for anyway.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Diaa Hadid updating us on the drama unfolding in Pakistan. Diaa, thank you for this.

HADID: You're welcome, Sacha. 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.

Corrected: February 9, 2024 at 8:00 PM AKST
An earlier headline incorrectly stated the election was a presidential election. It is a parliamentary election.
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.