The site of a bomb attack that occured in Karachi on polling day
Since its first electoral victory in the local body election of 1987, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) has maintained an astoundingly high rate of incumbency in Karachi. While its detractors attribute these repeated electoral successes to the party’s strong-arm tactics and its propensity to resort to electoral malpractice, it is undeniable that the MQM has retained a strong vote bank over the years. This resistance to the incumbency factor is all the more remarkable as the party has been facing a relentless vilification campaign since its early days, regularly branded as a “fascist” and “terrorist” organisation by its adversaries, while its charismatic leader, Altaf Hussain, has been sitting in exile in London since 1992.
It is not that the MQM has not suffered reversals in its political fortunes. Its vote share, indeed, declined steadily between 1990 and 2002. The 2008 election, however, marked a reversal in this trend. But even in 2002 when the party bore the brunt of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) offensive, its traditional vote bank (the Urdu-speaking electorate of Karachi’s District Central) shrunk but did not fizzle out (the MQM’s vote share in the provincial assembly constituencies of District Central remained close to 60 per cent whereas its overall vote share was just 42 per cent in all of Karachi). In the next election, the MQM managed to reassert itself throughout the city (with a 68 per cent vote share in provincial assembly elections, its highest score since 1993), repeating its record score of 1990 in District Central constituencies (with more than 90 per cent of the votes).
One should keep this background in mind when assessing the results of the 2013 election in Karachi. This election signaled important changes in the city’s political landscape. Granted, the MQM apparently is being cut down to size — and this does not only hold true for electoral politics but also for Karachi’s parallel and equally significant armed politics. However the party’s opponents would be ill-advised to celebrate prematurely the demise of a well-preserved party machine whose ability to bounce back in times of crisis is irrefutable. Moreover, the detractors of the MQM should be aware that the “Naya Karachi” that will rise on the ashes of the MQM’s hegemony will not be delivered without political and criminal violence. On the contrary, if the MQM’s decline is to materialise, it is bound to be accompanied by ever increasing levels of uncertainty and insecurity.
Between 2008 and 2013, the MQM’s vote share in the provincial assembly elections in Karachi went down by almost 10 per cent points from 68 per cent to 59 per cent). The main factor in this sharp decline is the arrival of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on Karachi’s electoral scene. With an overall vote share of 15 per cent in the provincial assembly elections and 18 per cent in the National Assembly elections, the PTI has proven that it could become a credible threat for the MQM’s hegemonic ambitions. This is all the more important as the PTI seems to have made a dent into the traditional vote bank of Karachi’s hegemony. Although the PTI’s vote share in the provincial assembly constituencies of District Central is slightly lower than its average vote share in the city at large (14 per cent versus 15 per cent), it has done remarkably well in a number of constituencies that until now were considered impregnable fiefdoms of the MQM. This was the case, for instance, of NA-245 (National Assembly constituency consisting of North Nazimabad) where the PTI secured 54,973 votes against 115,776 for the MQM. This was also the case – and even more remarkably, considering that this is the “home” constituency of the MQM – in NA-246 (Azizabad) where the PTI’s Amir Sharjeel secured 31,875 votes against the MQM’s Nabeel Gabol (who won with 137,874 votes). For all the drama that accompanied it, Arif Alvi’s victory in the “hot seat” of NA-250 was actually less significant, as this constituency has a record of versatility (in 2002, for instance, the MQM’s Nasreen Jalil was defeated by the MMA’s Abdul Sattar Afghani here).
Even if the PTI won the same number of seats from Karachi as the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – one National Assembly seat and three Sindh Assembly seats – the former has secured twice as many votes for the National Assembly elections as the latter and 230,000 more votes in the provincial assembly election. The MQM has reasons to worry: not only did the PTI become Karachi’s second largest party in terms of vote share (and a party which, adding insult to injury, garnered a significant number of votes from the MQM’s traditional constituencies, unlike the PPP), but its candidates also secured second position in 22 provincial assembly constituencies (out of 42) and 15 National Assembly constituencies (out of 20). It, however, remains to be seen whether this emerging vote bank will survive the 2013 “Naya Pakistan” hype.
While no one can rob the PTI of its symbolic victory, seeing it as culminating into an imminent demise of the MQM would be preposterous. The gap between the MQM and the PTI remains relatively wide, especially in the constituencies of District Central where the MQM has secured a much bigger number of votes than it did during its previous “defeat” in 2002, for instance. Having secured more than 70 per cent of the votes in the National Assembly or provincial assembly constituencies of District Central, the MQM continued to “over-perform” in its traditional bastion, to use the terms employed by Haris Gazdar in his paper Karachi’s Violence: Duality and Negotiation (2011). Even if the MQM were to lose a significantly larger number of seats to the PTI in the next elections, it would still retain all seats in District Central. Of course, an MQM cantoned to a handful of constituencies in District Central will no longer be the kingmaker (and king-breaker) which has been presiding over the destiny of Karachi for the last three decades. Though it will, nonetheless, remain an important stakeholder in the management of the city.
Farooq Sattar, ex-deputy convener of the MQM, addresses a press conference at Nine Zero
The party’s detractors will allege that this electoral resilience is the result of systematic malpractices, but even if they were proven right, would this not demonstrate that the MQM retains a firm grip over its electoral turf? The PTI supporters – many of whom had little previous experience of electoral contests – are yet to come to terms with the ground realities of Karachi’s politics. After almost four decades of civil strife, the battle for Karachi is not merely – maybe not even primarily – a battle for votes. It is a relentless showdown where the respective strength of the city’s stakeholders is partially a question of democratic legitimacy but also of street power — and these are truly mean streets we are talking about. On this terrain, the PTI remains an insignificant force, while the MQM continues to enjoy a predominant position, although there, as well, the ground beneath its feet is getting increasingly shaky — for reasons and with a potential outcome which, incidentally, remain largely unsuspected by the PTI loyalists.
For Karachi’s predominant party, the relative electoral setbacks of May 11 and May 19 are only the latest breach in its system of domination. Since the mid-1980s, the city’s politics is irreducible to electoral contests which coexist with a more occult and more violent realm of politics. Unlike what is sometimes claimed by its detractors, the MQM did not midwife this armed politics; the Islamist and progressive student organisations which went on a weapons procurement spree from the late 1970s onwards did. But the party contributed significantly to the institutionalisation of this “other” political arena where political parties and violent entrepreneurs battle it out for the control of turf and economic rents. On this terrain as well, the MQM has been losing ground over the last few years, although it still remains a force to be reckoned with.
Since 2007, the MQM has been on the defensive, facing armed resistance from myriad contenders for a piece of the Karachi pie. Starting with a freshly militarised Awami National Party (ANP), a new generation of politico-military actors has been challenging the MQM’s monopoly over the protection, representation and taxation of Karachi’s populations. While the ANP has been reduced to a shadow of its former self by the offensive of the jihadi factions affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) since June 2012, other armed factions have proved to be a greater challenge to the MQM.
This is the case of the People’s Aman Committee (PAC), in particular, which has been expanding its activities well beyond its bastion of Lyari over the last few years. Taking root in many Baloch-populated goths across Karachi, the PAC has become a major irritant for the MQM. In Landhi, for instance, the PAC recently took a foothold in several Baloch- and Sindhi-dominated localities along Korangi Road, such as Baloch Para and Ismail Goth.
In February 2013, I went to a friend living in a Christian katchi abadi of Landhi II, at the border of Ismail Goth. This was not my first visit to the area and I could feel that the atmosphere was unusually charged. The fresh bullet marks on the street separating this kachi abadi from Ismail Goth bore testimony to the highly volatile “situation”. So did the dark rings under my friend’s eyes. As he explained, local residents hadn’t been able to find sleep for several nights in a row, as the militants of the locally dominant MQM were facing a joint offensive from Baloch strongmen and Sindhi nationalists (who were well entrenched in Ismail Goth), with some reinforcement from a resurgent Mohajir Qaumi Movement or MQM–Haqiqi. As I bid farewell to my friend that day, I could not help worrying about the times ahead. While Lyari and Kati Pahari have become household names for ethnic and criminal violence over the last few years – to the great dismay of their residents, who feel increasingly alienated from a city that looks down upon them – it is in these working-class settlements, urban villages and derelict slums of Landhi that the current transformation of Karachi’s increasingly complex ecology of violence is the most blatant.
In this regard, Future Colony might have an appropriate – and ominous – name. Within a few square kilometers here, every armed faction active in Karachi maintains a visible presence and appears determined to fight for its turf and for the control of the economic rents associated with it (drug trafficking, in particular). The writing on the wall is clear, both literally and metaphorically. As the ubiquitous wall-chalking in praise of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi attests, the ANP has had to contend with the ever more visible presence of sectarian and jihadi groups here. This found confirmation during the 2013 provincial assembly election when the Muttahida Deeni Mahaz (MDM), of which the SSP’s successor Ahle Sunnat wal Jama’at (ASWJ) was a component, registered its best score in Karachi in Sindh Assembly’s constituency PS-128 which covers Future Colony and the neighboring localities of Landhi II.
On the whole, electoral success has eluded sectarian parties which, for the first time, have tried to make inroads into the National Assembly and provincial assembly elections in the city. (Electoral failure was even more visible in the case of the Shia groups gathered together as the Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen.) In PS-128, however, the MDM candidate Aurangzeb Farooqi (who leads the Karachi chapter of the ASWJ), secured 21,332 votes and came a close second to the MQM’s Waqar Hussain Shah who won with 23,496 votes. This was another warning call for the MQM and, even more so, for the ANP which, at least in Landhi, has been literally wiped out by an emerging sectarian vote.
A few hundred metres away from Future Colony, portraits of Uzair Baloch saturate the visual environment while one only needs to cross the road and venture into the lanes of the aforementioned Christian kachi abadi to find inscriptions claiming sovereignty over this piece of land and its residents at the sound of ‘Jiye Altaf! Jiye Muttahida!’ In any other city, this co-presence of rival ethnic-cum-political groups would not be such a cause for alarm, but in Karachi, it signals the increasing fragmentation of urban space into a patchwork of ethnic citadels ruled by organic sovereigns claiming the power – if not the right – to discipline, punish and eventually kill with impunity. Increasingly, the MQM appears to have been downgraded to the rank of a primus inter pares (first among the equals) within this emerging landscape of self-assumed sovereignties.
The protesters who gathered at Karachi’s Teen Talwar crossing on and after May 11 to protest against election rigging rarely venture into this part of the town and thus have little idea about the current challenges to Karachi’s tensile equilibrium. In any case, if these demonstrators thought that all a peaceful and well-behaved “Naya Karachi” demands is the eviction of the MQM from the political game, they are in for a rude awakening.
Whatever its detractors might think, Karachi’s challenged hegemony is no longer in control of the armed politics, of the market of protection and of the shadow economy which have been a source of anxiety for many a “decent” citizen while providing a living to millions of others. The Teen Talwar protesters should also realise that the downgrading of the MQM will probably translate into ever more atomised and lethal forms of violence.
Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf take to the streets in protest against the evident rigging during election
The political and military predominance of the MQM had introduced an element of stability and predictability in a political configuration otherwise characterised by chronic uncertainty and informality. This “ordered disorder” was exemplified by the market of protection that came with the rise of the MQM at the helm of Karachi’s politics. If the critics of the political party complain that the collection of bhatta (protection money) caused great distress to the shopkeepers, entrepreneurs and citizens of Karachi, this system was not without merits for its participants, however coerced into it they might have been. The collection of “donations” was rationalised at all levels: it followed a fixed periodicity, was duly acknowledged through receipts and was proportional to the revenue of each and every one. In a country where only 0.6 per cent of the population paid income tax in 2012, and where Value Added Tax efficiency is the lowest in the world (at 25 per cent), the MQM proved that it was possible to enforce a rational system of revenue collection.
What truly has caused distress to Karachi’s mercantile and industrial classes over the last few years is the deregulation of the market of protection, following the gradual loss of control of the MQM over revenue collection — a process which paved the way for increasingly violent and arbitrary forms of extortion. This was exemplified, in recent years, by the Shershah scrap market massacre and also by the methods of the new major extortionists in town — the Pakistani Taliban, who tend to demand much heftier sums from Pakhtun entrepreneurs than any racketeer ever did in the past, and with even greater brutality.
The embedding of violence in Karachi’s politics and economy has reached such a level that even if the MQM renounced its hegemonic ambitions and proceeded to a complete aggiornamento of its muscular style of governance, it is doubtful that predatory behaviours and armed conflicts would recede in the city. Karachi’s predominant – but increasingly challenged – party currently resembles the sorcerer’s apprentice of Goethe’s poem, who stands before the spirits he has summoned and which, once at large, are no longer in his control.