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The MQM crisis

Published 13 Dec, 2017 02:52am
Illustration by RSM
Illustration by RSM

Mustafa Kamal’s return to Pakistan was followed closely by the founding of the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), a breakaway faction of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) that rejected muhajir identity in favour of Pakistani nationalism and denounced Altaf Hussain’s divisive politics. It was too much of a coincidence for observers of Pakistani politics to believe that his party was not backed by the so-called establishment. In the aftermath of the failed merger attempt between PSP and MQM-Pakistan last month, Kamal lashed out against the latter, claiming that it was also the establishment’s brainchild created in the office of a senior army official.

Major General Muhammad Saeed, Director General of Sindh Rangers, has unequivocally denied any role in the creation of the MQM-Pakistan, saying that its split from MQM-London was an internal party matter. Yet, it is fairly obvious that Altaf Hussain’s fiery anti-Pakistan rhetoric sparked the army’s violent crackdown on the MQM in Karachi, instigating Farooq Sattar to sever ties from MQM-London as a means of self-preservation. There is, however, some acknowledgement among all insiders and outside observers that the security forces facilitated talks between PSP and MQM-P over the last few months that led to their merger — that eventually could not be.

The inherent contradiction in the establishment being directly responsible for the factionalisation of an erstwhile cohesive party, and then subsequently making an effort to mend the rift by facilitating a merger, begs the question — what were the motivations driving this maneuvering?

The most pressing concern for the army is the security of Karachi. Both political parties reportedly have militant wings and the army fears an outbreak of violence if the two parties were to outwardly clash over control of Karachi’s electoral constituencies. Another related fear is that, if a cohesive political party does not articulate the interests of the muhajir community, the simmering sense of disempowerment among Karachi’s Urdu-speaking population could once again lead to ethnic clashes between them and the Sindhis against the backdrop of rising religious extremism.

The virtual monopoly that Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) enjoys over rural Sindh is another concern. The post-2013 by-election results have revealed that it has the most to gain from the chaos within the MQM. Reports of former president Asif Ali Zardari’s keenness to woo MQM members coupled with the Sindh government delivering on its promise of development indicates a desire to boost PPP’s electoral chances in urban Sindh.

The army has historically been uncomfortable with PPP’s pervasive influence over Sindh’s politics and has once again adopted the same playbook used by General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s — prop up MQM in urban Sindh to counterbalance PPP. This time round, the army wants to bank on Kamal’s clout as ex-mayor of Karachi as well as MQM-P’s current influence in the local government and its grassroots organisation to unite the muhajir vote. A merger of PSP and MQM-P, without the destructive influence of Altaf Hussain, could result in the election of a bloc of legislators with coalition potential in the formation of the next government that would owe loyalty to the establishment.

The establishment’s agenda aside, PSP and MQM-P should reconsider forming another alliance. Presently, electoral prospects for PSP and MQM-P are decidedly bleak due to possible vote-splitting. Both parties rely on muhajir voters and they are likely to undermine each other and end up ceding votes to other competing parties.

Moreover, the crisis of legitimacy in MQM-P and the mass exodus of its activists and leaders to PSP needs to be stemmed before it causes the party irreparable damage. Simultaneously, PSP should not become over-confident for its members can easily be poached by other political parties looking for an edge in urban Sindh’s competitive constituencies.

The more sensible way forward is for PSP and MQM-P to harness the momentum gained from anti-Altaf sentiment to rebrand themselves but without losing sight of their core constituency — the Urdu-speaking urban voter in Sindh.

The writer is an assistant professor at the political science department of the University of Waterloo, Canada, and holds a PhD in political science from John Hopkins University.

This article was published in the Herald's December 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.