Pakistan General Election: With MQM losing its iron grip over Karachi, political uncertainty grips city
The contest in Karachi is crucial, not only because of its political scene but in terms of its status as the commercial heart of Pakistan.
Karachi woke up to its usual power breakdowns, water shortage and a series of violent incidents, which included a political worker getting injured in police firing, some terrorists arrested and the odd kidnapping. Yet, Karachi is the city that has fielded all three aspirants to the prime minister's post – Bilawal Bhutto, Shahbaz Sharif and Imran Khan.
This testifies to Karachi's heft in not only the political scene but in terms of its status as the commercial heart of the nation, contributing over 62 percent of tax collection, not to mention being home to the largest port in the country. It is also home to the most important business families, big time criminals and in short, the repository of the big bucks that matter in just about everything, elections included. When Karachi has a cold, Pakistan sneezes. And in India, the temperature goes up a notch or two.
What happens in Karachi matters, and this year, no one has any real idea of which way Karachi is going to vote. This uncertainty is a product of several changes – some of which are deliberate, and others not. In the first category, is the fact that the establishment has gone after the Muttahida Quami Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) with a drawn sword, on the grounds that it was allegedly a puppet of the Indian government, and more realistically, that it was behind half the crime and violence in the city.
It was once said that not a leaf could fall in Karachi without the MQM knowing about it. Following a decisive "anti-terrorism operation" by the Rangers and some skilful wheeling dealing, that era is definitely closed. Altaf Hussain, once the uncrowned king of Karachi, only erratically emerges on the air from his lair in London and seems to be virtually unstable.
His former deputy Farooq Sattar is being hounded by the courts and heads a faction that bases itself on being anti-establishment. That will still win votes, but not enough. Worse, the mother party has split virtually into three factions, with the legendary Headquarters Nine Zero shifted to Bahardurabad (Amir Khan faction) and the formation of the Pakistan Sarzameen Party (PSP) headed by former Hussain loyalist Mustafa Kamal.
The PSP is untried, but it will obviously eat away at the MQM voter base of Mohajirs. In short, the MQM is extremely unlikely to get the tally (17 National Assembly seats and 35 Provincial Assembly) of 2013, and they will no longer 'control' Karachi, as it once did. That will change the politics at the national level. Don't forget that the city, with its 2.3 million population, accounts for 21 of the seats in the National Assembly, and 44 in the Provincial Assembly.
That issue is the key to the next aspect of a change that has been happening over the years. The population of Mohajirs has been coming down, both relatively and in absolute terms. As is now general knowledge, refugees from Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been steadily flowing into the city from the mid-1970s, with this accelerating after the army started its counter-terrorism operations in the tribal areas with artillery and aircraft attacks that created more than two million refugees.
A large part of this has settled down in Karachi, and its environs, thus reducing the already small number of Mohajirs in the city. Data indicates that the Mohajir population has fallen from 24 percent (1981 census) to 21 percent (1988 census) to the present 18.2 percent in the entire province. In Karachi, it seems to have fallen from 49 percent in 1998 to the present 41.4 per cent. That's a steep fall, for a party that has lost its ability to attract Sindhi and Pakhtun voters.
Conversely, the percentage of Sindhi speakers has been steadily rising (from 55.7 in 1981 to the present 61.6 percent), which means that Sindhi nationalist parties are likely to increase their vote share. This brings in the Grand Democratic Alliance, which is a coalition of five political parties including one lead by the influential Pir Pagara (the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional).
The Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party of Dr Qadir Magsi, who is contesting against Asif Ali Zardari, is looking for the nationalist Sindh support as well. While the GDA cannot stand on its own, it will still get enough votes to bargain with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), now spearheaded by the young Bilawal, who is contesting from Lyari – his family’s traditional seat, now expanded after delimitation to include MQM strongholds.
The PPP's traditional rural base is likely to be adversely affected by its terrible performance (particularly in terms of power and water). It is also worth remembering that PPP is not really a Sindhi party. Until 2013, it polled more votes in Punjab than Sindh. It does, however, have the backing of large Sindh business houses, which is what matters. For all practical purposes, however, the fact that the Sindhi population is growing and re-asserting itself politically is a factor that will impinge national politics, whoever wins.
The performance of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), led by the thrice-married Imran, is likely to be one of the biggest 'unknowns' in Karachi. Even while the party did well in the 2013 elections, eating into both PPP and MQM voter base, it then seemed to have lost heart, retreating in several by-elections.
But again, the fact that Imran chose to contest from the newly delimited constituency (NA 243), which is heavily Urdu speaking, indicates that he is also targeting the Mohajir vote together with 14 other high profile candidates. The fact that the PTI has been forced to take in 'electables' (ie candidates who swing with the wind) is one thing.
In Karachi, he will also have to swing considerably to the right to deal with the emergence of new parties like the Barelvi TLP (Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah) which demonstrated its power by shutting down Karachi in November 2017. Its firebrand leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has already indicated that he would consider an alliance with the PTI if the situation calls for it.
The PTI seems to be the natural magnet for these rightist parties flexing their muscles. In sum, expect that a largely religious neutral Karachi is likely to swing to the right, slowly, over the years. This is the tenor of the times, and this is what the establishment is supporting.
Gallup polls meanwhile indicate that political activity overall is lacklustre, hardly surprising in a country where the hand of the military has been overwhelmingly apparent in booting out former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Polls in Sindh still favour the PPP, which is what will probably be the end result, but it is unlikely to better its performance either at the national or provincial level.
A hastily gathered together majority, with independents and the rump MQM-P, seems to be the best option. With this will come more instability, as the establishment continues to play ping-pong politics in one of the most crime-ridden megacities of the world. Also, look out for a resurgence of Sindhi nationalism in the years ahead and a closing of ranks as other ethnic groups steadily increase their presence. That is what the cards are likely to show in the future.
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