As they head to the polls this week, residents in Pakistan’s most populous and affluent province are fed up.
Just look around, they say: The economy is in free fall and inflation has soared. A favorite politician has been thrown behind bars. Everyone from young laborers to prominent influencers in the province, Punjab, have been jailed alongside him.
And it’s become clear, many say, that a group once widely supported in Punjab is to blame: the country’s military.
“We aren’t faulting the politicians anymore — now we know who to blame,” said Sibghat Butt, 29, a customer service representative in Lahore, the province’s capital. “We’re living in a security state.”
That anger is shared across Punjab, a stark shift over the past two years that has shaken a core tenet of a political system whose ultimate authority is the military. The growing criticism in Punjab has chipped away at the military’s legitimacy and helped make this one of the most polarized moments in Pakistan’s history.
Throughout the country’s 76-year existence, Punjab residents have been well represented in the military’s ranks. The elite in Lahore, an affluent metropolis, have long maintained strong ties to the upper echelons of the military establishment. While civilians in much of the rest of the country have been displaced or killed or have disappeared at the hands of the security forces, those in Punjab never really faced the heavy hand of the military.
But now, as the country heads into an election tainted by military meddling, that once loyal base of support has eroded. Many in Punjab, as in the rest of the country, felt betrayed by the military after the populist prime minister, Imran Khan, was removed in 2022 — an ouster they believe the military orchestrated after Mr. Khan fell out with the generals.
When Mr. Khan was arrested in May and anti-military protests swept the country, residents of Lahore stormed a top general’s house, setting it ablaze. In the months since, hundreds in Punjab have been arrested — including some in Lahore’s elite whose families have close ties to the military — and slapped with charges of terrorism and inciting violence.
Government officials have defended the arrests as a necessary response to the violent protests in May. “No country tolerates such criminal actions,” said Murtaza Solangi, the interim information minister.
Others now blame the military for the dismal state of the economy, after the generals took a more front-seat role in guiding the country’s economic policies following Mr. Khan’s ouster. They are also concerned as terrorism resurges across the country, seeing the military leaders as focused more on squashing Mr. Khan’s support base than on keeping the country secure.
“This is the first time we’re really seeing anti-establishment sentiments in Punjab,” said Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based analyst, referring to the military. “The institution has become much more controversial, and the anti-army sentiment now runs very deep.”
The military has directly ruled Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 240 million people, for most of its existence. Even under civilian governments, it has wielded enormous power.
That has impeded Pakistan’s progress toward democracy, analysts say. But in Punjab, it also led the military to be viewed as a last line of defense in a country with weak political parties, fragile institutions, a crumbling economy and violent extremism. Now, even those with deep military roots are beginning to question the generals’ iron grip on power.
At the Colabs co-working space in Lahore, Tazeen Shaukat, 27, sat in front of her laptop, a blue neon sign with the phrase “Grind & Shine” lighting up the walls of black steel and exposed brick.
Ms. Shaukat said that her father had spent his career in the army. He taught her that the military was a hallowed institution, the so-called sacred cow that held the country together.
“For a long time, I really believed that, too, that politicians aren’t to be trusted and we needed the military,” said Ms. Shaukat, a data engineer.
After the military propelled Mr. Khan — who at the time was in its good graces — to the political forefront a decade ago, all of that changed.
Like many in upper-middle-class military families in Lahore, her father became an avid supporter of Mr. Khan and was appalled after he was ousted in 2022. His loyalty to the popular leader seemed to overtake his allegiance to the army. “His opinion completely changed — he kept saying it was a huge mistake,” she said.
At the same time, she and many of her young friends were watching viral videos produced by Mr. Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., that explained in plain language how the military was destabilizing the country’s democracy — not holding it together.
“Now I have a better sense of what democratic politics should look like,” she said.
In Lahore, that sentiment is especially strong among the young upper middle class that saw Mr. Khan as a reformer.
One recent afternoon at the Lahore Polo Club, dozens of people gathered on restaurant patios to watch the day’s match. Smog hung low over the field, and French jazz emanated from the bistro’s speakers. Each time the pack galloped closer to the spectators, the rhythmic thuds of the thoroughbreds echoed across the field.
Mustafa, 38, had come to the match to celebrate his wife’s 33rd birthday. Both were swept up in the fervor around Mr. Khan when he rose to political prominence and watched as friends who had lived abroad for years returned to Pakistan. “Imran brought a glimmer of hope — even if he was backed by the army then,” said Mustafa, 38, who gave only his first name for fear of repercussions.
The military’s crackdown on Mr. Khan’s supporters after his ouster snuffed out any hope of change, he said. It has had a chilling effect, as friends have been detained for social media posts expressing support for P.T.I.
The granddaughter of a former army chief and prominent P.T.I. supporter in Lahore, Khadijah Shah, was arrested and jailed for seven months after the May protests.
“It may not be officially martial law, but it’s basically martial law because you can’t speak your mind openly,” Mustafa said.
“At some point, it just gets to be too much,” his wife, Shameen, 33, interjected. She also preferred to give only her first name. “That’s the frustration of the youth, we’re waiting, waiting, waiting, but nothing’s changing — for how long can we wait?”
The couple plan to leave Pakistan and move to Canada in the coming year, they said.
The antimilitary sentiment has complicated the generals’ efforts to tilt the election in favor of its preferred party of the moment, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or P.M.L.N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Punjab is known as the country’s most heated battleground, contributing 173 of the 326 seats in Pakistan’s Parliament.
Young people angry at the military can no longer be trusted to vote for the party their parents or community elders tell them to, upending the way politics has worked for decades in Punjab. Others are casting votes for P.T.I. candidates just to spite the military, they say.
“What’s been going on is wrong; they’re rigging the election — that’s not fair,” said Muhammad Tayyab, 21, standing outside his car repair shop in Jhelum, a small city in central Punjab.
“Careful what you say — the military will pick you up,” one man warned as he left the shop, electric rickshaws whizzing by. Others around him were less reserved.
“We’ll go to the polls with the symbol of P.M.L.N. on our shirts,” one young man yelled as he passed by, “but we’re voting P.T.I.!”
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