Flags representing Pakistan Peoples Party in Keamari, Karachi | Momina Manzoor Khan
Flags representing Pakistan Peoples Party in Keamari, Karachi | Momina Manzoor Khan

Muhammad Ali Behleem, a 50-year-old resident of Larkana city, has been a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) supporter since his childhood. He has voted for the party in every election in the last three decades but has decided not to vote for it in the 2018 polls. “PPP has failed to follow the policies of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto to deliver public goods. This is why I have decided to stop supporting it,” he says.

A number of urban residents in the two upper Sindh divisions of Larkana and Sukkur have similar complaints against the party. They, though, do not know who to vote for if not for PPP. There is no alternative, many of them say.

The Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), a combination of many parties and influential individuals, is trying to offer that alternative. It is also supporting candidates of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) as well as some independents in a patchwork of seat adjustments spread across Sindh as an attempt to consolidate all anti-PPP votes.

The largest component of this alliance is Pir Pagara’s Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PMLF) that first appeared on the national scene in the 1980s as the only legally functional political entity at a time when General Ziaul Haq had placed a ban on organised politics. Some other parties in the alliance, Sindh United Party, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party and Awami Tehreek, are all offshoots of Sindhi nationalism that was a potent ideology across Sindh until a couple of decades ago.

The assumption behind the formation of GDA is that anti-PPP votes get split among various candidates who sometimes collectively poll more vot es than PPP does in a constituency. Throw in seat adjustment deals with other alliances, parties and candidates outside GDA and there will be the possibility to defeat PPP even in its strongholds — at least in theory. Rashid Mehmood Soomro, who heads JUIF in Sindh and is an MMA candidate in Larkana’s NA-200 constituency against PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, believes the theory is being put into practice this time round. “In the last election in this constituency, total anti-PPP votes were 30,000 more than those polled for PPP,” he says. Claiming that both GDA and the Larkana Awami Ittehad, an alliance headed by the family of PPP’s dissident former senator Safdar Abbasi, are now supporting him, he adds: “All those votes will be polled in my favour. It will be an easy win for me against Bilawal.”

The numbers do add up. The second and third runners-up, PMLF’s Mehtab Akbar Rashidi and Moazzam Ali Khan, together polled 60,751 votes. PPP’s Ayaz Soomro polled around 10,000 votes less than that and yet he won.

Moazzam Ali Khan Abbasi, who is also a leader of the Larkana Awami Ittehad, is supporting Rashid Mehmood Soomro but 16 other candidates, including one from PTI, are still in the run against Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. The votes against him may still split but by a lesser degree. But he is not Ayaz Soomro, a third-tier party worker with no personal appeal. “He is Benazir Bhutto’s son and is contesting his first election,” says Ghulam Hussain Katpar, a teacher in Naudero town near Larkana. “Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari will win with a good margin,” he adds.

Syed Khurshid Ahmed Shah, a senior PPP parliamentarian from Sukkur, offers another explanation. Only 50 per cent votes of each component party get transferred to the candidate of an alliance, he argues. His contention is that many voters of a party in an alliance will not feel motivated to cast their ballot for someone who they do not associate with politically. “This is why it is a wrong assumption that all votes polled by various candidates against PPP in previous elections will be pocketed by a single candidate,” he says.

PPP’s candidates have another edge over their rivals in Sindh. They have vast experience of electioneering and possess the ability to convince voters to support them even at the eleventh hour.

Women voters and a majority of non-Muslim voters in many constituencies across Sindh are an additional reason why PPP wins. “[The party] has strengthened women financially through its Benazir Income Support Programme,” says Kalpana Devi, a member of a lawyers’ association in Larkana. “It has also done some important legislation that has benefitted religious minorities,” she says. “This is why a good number of women and non-Muslim voters are with PPP.”

The competition for NA-196 in Jacobabad district is going to be tougher than it was in 2013. A large number of voters belonging to urban areas appear unhappy with PPP. Resentment towards the party among local traders is high. “A majority of traders and their families are not ready to support PPP in this election,” says Ahmed Ali Brohi, who heads the Jacobabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Some leaders of the local Hindu community are also disgruntled because of bad law and order, abductions and forced conversions of Hindu girls. Most Hindus living in Jacobabad do not seem inclined to vote for PPP, they say.

Muhammad Mian Soomro, a former Senate chairman and caretaker prime minister in 2007-08, is running on a PTI ticket in NA-196 against PPP’s Aijaz Hussain Jakhrani who has won the seat in the last three elections. The former is the scion of a local family that has been eminent in Sindh’s politics for decades. His cousin Ilahi Bux Soomro was the National Assembly speaker in the 1990s. But, as local writer S B Khoso says, Muhammad Mian Soomro neither lives in Jacobabad nor is accessible to people. “This is why Jakhrani has an edge in the election.”

In NA-197 in Kashmore district, PPP’s Ehsanur Rehman Mazari and GDA’s Abdul Ghani Bijarani are opposing each other. Their contest seems to favour the former over the latter. PPP is in a similarly strong position on Qambar Shahdadkot district’s two seats – NA-202 and NA- 203 – and its candidate in Larkana’s second seat, NA-201, is also leading.

The same cannot be said about Shikarpur district’s two constituencies — NA-198 and NA-199. Ibrahim Jatoi is running as an independent in the first and Ghaus Bux Mahar is contesting as a GDA nominee in the second. They have a history of defeating their PPP rivals. For the 2018 elections, however, Ibrahim Jatoi is not as comfortably placed as he would be in the past because constituency boundaries have been redrawn and a large number of his supporters have ended up in a different constituency. Ghaus Bux Mahar is facing a new PPP challenger and the changed boundaries of his constituency are also posing some problems but he may still win.

PPP’s electoral prospects have suffered a jolt in Ghotki district where the Mahar Brothers – Ali Muhammad Khan Mahar and Ali Gohar Khan Mahar, who both won National Assembly seats as the party’s nominees in 2013 – decided to run independently for the 2018 elections (Ali Gohar Mahar is running from Sukkur this time). They were upset because the party had welcomed into its fold some of their arch rivals in local politics such as Khalid Ahmed Khan Lund (who quit PPP and joined Pervez Musharraf’s government after winning a National Assembly seat in 2002). He is now PPP’s ticket holder in NA-204 where he is leading against Abdul Haque who is being backed by the Mahar brothers as well as GDA.

PPP is set to win both the seats in Thatta and Sujawal districts — thanks to the inclusion of the powerful Shirazis in its fold a few weeks earlier.

On the neighbouring seat of NA-205, Ali Mohammad Mahar is ahead of his relatively little-known PPP rival Ahsanullah Sundarani. But the Mahar clan itself is divided. Ali Mohammad Mahar’s bother Ali Nawaz Mahar is a PPP nominee for two provincial assembly seats and their cousin Muhammad Bux Mahar is canvassing on the party’s behalf. This has turned the contest into a very interesting one.

In Sukkur district, GDA is backing PTI on the district’s two National Assembly seats, NA-206 and NA-207. This will help their unanimous candidates to put up strong fights but PPP’s candidates – Khursheed Ahmad Shah and Nauman Islam Sheikh – seem to be doing fine. PPP is also leading in Khairpur district that has three National Assembly seats: NA-208, NA-209 and NA-210. Nafisa Shah Jillani, a known writer and human rights activist whose father Qaim Ali Shah has been Sindh’s chief minister multiple times, is running on a PPP ticket in NA-208 against former chief minister Ghaus Ali Shah who is contesting as a GDA nominee. It is a close fight though PPP may have a bit of an edge.

In NA-209, GDA’s Pir Sadruddin Shah Rashidi, the younger brother of Pir Pagara, is ahead of his PPP rival Fazal Shah Jillani. In NA-210, however, PPP’s Syed Javed Ali Shah Jillani is a little ahead of GDA’s Syed Kazim Ali Shah in what, otherwise, is a very close contest. PPP is leading on both seats in Shaheed Benazirabad (Nawabshah) district – NA-213 and NA-214 – as well. These are being contested by Asif Ali Zardari and Syed Ghulam Mustafa Shah, respectively. In the neighbouring district of Naushahro Feroze, the party has nominated strong candidates on both NA-211 and NA-212. Its opponents on these seats, Zafar Ali Shah (who has been in and out of PPP more than once since the 1980s) and Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi (who has been a federal minister in every government except one since 1997), have joined hands as part of GDA and are supporting each other. Yet Zafar Ali Shah will find it difficult to win a seat that he would secure only as a PPP nominee. Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi, too, will have to work hard to maintain his lead against his traditional rival, Zulfiqar Ali Behan.

What may have worked in the favour of PPP candidates in these two districts is that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari addressed large gatherings here during his campaign tour of Sindh earlier this month. This has energised the party’s supporters and voters.

Mirpurkhas is an agricultural district, affected by water shortage in recent months. Though many local residents hold PPP’s last provincial government responsible for the problem, there are no signs that this will result in an electoral debacle for the party. A revolt by a local dissident is, in fact, causing more heartburn to the party than complaints by agriculturists.

The dissident, Syed Ali Nawaz Shah, was denied a PPP nomination for a provincial assembly seat so he decided to challenge the party’s nominee for NA-218, Pir Hassan Ali Shah, who nevertheless enjoys lead over all his opponents. If Syed Ali Nawaz Shah gets GDA’s support, he has the potential to win a provincial assembly seat where his own nephew, Zulfikar Ali Shah, is a PPP nominee.

Sanghar, historically, has been a PMLF territory where PPP has made strong inroads of late. In 2013, the former party won two of the district’s three seats but, later, PPP claimed one of them in a by-election.

This time round, Khuda Bux Rajar, a former federal minister, is a GDA nominee for one of these seats, NA-215. His PPP rival is Naveed Dero whose uncle Fida Dero was a runner up in this constituency in the 2013 elections. A tough fight is expected here though Khuda Bux Rajar may secure the seat.

In NA-216, PPP’s Shazia Marri is leading against GDA’s Kishan Chand Parwani who is an outsider to the area but has deep pockets to spend his way into voters’ hearts. Shazia Marri, however, has developed a strong vote bank in the constituency after winning there in a by-election in 2013.

Roshan Din Junejo, a 2013 winner, is PPP’s nominee in NA-217 against Mahi Khan Wassan of GDA who has been a PMLF member of the Sindh Assembly between 2002 and 2007. Junejo is seen as a stronger candidate since he is also being backed by his former rival Imamuddin Shouqeen who is now a PPP senator.

PPP has, similarly, expanded its electoral influence in Tharparkar district that has two National Assembly seats. Traditionally a bastion of Arbabs (who have a long history of switching parties), the district now offers a competitive electoral space where many candidates and parties are vying for victory.

Campaign posters in Badin | Abbas Khaskheli
Campaign posters in Badin | Abbas Khaskheli

PPP won in Tharparkar in 2013 and looks set to retain at least one of its two seats easily, thanks to a successful mobilisation of the district’s large Hindu population in its favour. Its candidate in NA-222, Mahesh Malani, is leading his opponent, GDA’s Arbab Zakaullah, who is a nephew of former chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim. Another of his nephews, Arbab Lutfullah, however, has joined PPP and is contesting in a provincial assembly constituency against his own famous uncle. Arbab Ghulam Rahim may win the contest but it will dent Arbab Zakaullah’s prospects by dividing their family’s traditional voters. In NA-221, PPP’s 2013 winner Noor Muhammad Shah is facing a very serious challenge from GDA-supported and PTI-nominated Shah Mehmood Qureshi who has a large-scale spiritual following in the area. The vote difference between the two in the last election was tiny: just above 2,000 votes. Noor Muhammad Shah is facing an additional challenge. Ghani Khan Khoso, a senior PPP worker from the area, is contesting a provincial assembly seat as an independent as a show of resentment against the party’s election nominations. He has the potential to snatch a few thousand votes from the party and, thus, cause it to lose the seat. But, like in the last election, the contest is a cliffhanger.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi is also contesting in NA-220 against PPP’s former federal minister Nawab Yousaf Talpur. Their last encounter in 2013 was won by the latter by a clear margin of 13,566 votes. Barring some last minute change in the situation, he may have a similar lead this time round too.

PPP is set to retain Tando Muhammad Khan district’s lone seat, NA-228, as well as Tando Allahyar’s only seat, NA-224. But the competition will be tough on Dadu district’s two seats – NA-234 and NA-235. Even though anti-PPP candidates for these constituencies are more or less the same – family members of former chief minister Liaquat Ali Jatoi, who contested and lost the last election – a couple of factors may work in their favour, giving their chances a boost. Firstly, Liaquat Jatoi and his son Karim Jatoi have left PMLN and joined PTI (though this change hardly matters in most of Sindh’s rural districts) as an attempt to tap into the resentment among educated young voters against older political parties in general and PPP in particular. Secondly, a former PPP parliamentarian, Dr Talat Iqbal Mahesar, is supporting the Jatois. Together, the two factors will help them increase their vote tally but they may still fall short. Corruption allegations against Liaquat Ali Jatoi and his ineffectual tenure as chief minister back in 1997 are some of the negative factors that may still work against him and his son.

In nearby Matiari district, PPP’s top leadership’s love-hate relationship with the Makhdooms of Hala continues. This has been going on since the 1970s but the two sides have managed to muddle along despite differences that crop up every now and then. This time round, too, there were issues on which they did not see eye to eye, such as election nominations for some prominent spiritual followers of the Makhdooms in other parts of Sindh — Thar, in particular. These problems notwithstanding, Makhdoom Jamiluz Zaman (whose father Amin Faheem won seven times from the same Matiari-Hala area between 1977 and 2013) is well placed to win in NA-223 against his GDA rival Makhdoom Fazal Hussain. The two candidates are also distantly related.

NA-233 in Jamshoro also remains a PPP stronghold even though the party has changed its candidate from its serial winner Malik Asad Sikandar (who is now contesting for the provincial assembly from the same area) to a former nazim of Sehwan taluka, Sikandar Rahupoto. His rival is GDA’s Syed Jalal Mehmood Shah who also heads the Sindh United Party and is a grandson of the doyen of Sindhi nationalism, G M Syed.

The ethnically divided Hyderabad district has had a set electoral pattern: two of its three seats go to Urdu-speaking contestants (who, without, exception have been associated with MQM since 1988) and one to a Sindhi-speaking candidate (usually a PPP nominee). Three new factors may determine whether the pattern will continue.

First of these is a seat adjustment deal between Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan’s Abul Khair Muhammad Zubair (who won a downtown area seat in 2002 and has been receiving around 10,000 votes since then) and PPP which has withdrawn its candidate against him in exchange for his support for the party’s provincial nominees in the city. Whether this will be good enough to break the monopoly of MQM’s associates on NA-227 is conditional on the second factor: how much internal damage MQM’s various factions, including the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), can cause to each other.

The third new factor is the entry of a media house owner, Ali Kazi, in the district’s politics as the head of his Tabdeeli Pasand Party. He has been running a strong campaign in Qasimabad area which is a PPP stronghold. Will he be able to defeat the deeply entrenched PPP electoral machine in Hyderabad is a question that will be answered on polling day but the challenge from him means that PPP’s candidates have to work extra hard to ensure continued support for themselves.

PPP is set to win both the seats in Thatta and Sujawal districts — thanks to the inclusion of the powerful Shirazis in its fold a few weeks earlier. Though some old party workers are not happy with the move, none of them is contesting the election to hurt the party’s electoral fortunes.

The district where PPP is in a tight corner is Badin. There, Dr Zulfiqar Mirza, former Sindh home minister and a close friend of Asif Ali Zardari, has joined hands with GDA in his bid to defeat the party’s nominees. He himself is a contestant for a provincial assembly seat, as is his son Hasnain Mirza, but his wife, former National Assembly speaker Fehmida Mirza, and another son, Hassam Mirza, are running for the National Assembly.

On one seat, NA-229, PPP has nominated Mir Ghulam Ali Talpur, a landlord with a large personal vote bank, against Hassam Mirza. The contest is extremely close and both candidates have their work cut out for them.

In NA-230, Fahmida Mirza is pitted against PPP’s Haji Rasool Bux Chandio whose brother Muhammad Nawaz Chandio has been a member of the provincial assembly in the past. The battle for Badin will be ultimately decided by voter turnout: whichever side is able to mobilise a larger number of voters to get out and vote will win both seats. The intense level of campaigning in the district suggests the two sides will do whatever they can to ensure just that.

Who will win in Punjab is perhaps the most asked question during this election cycle — as it perhaps always is. Another, only slightly less asked, question this time round is: who will win in Karachi?

The city is by all means important. One in every 13 Pakistanis is living here. And its 14.9 million inhabitants are more diverse than people in any other part of the country: it has the largest concentrations of Pakhtun and Baloch populations in the world; it is Pakistan’s largest Sunni city and is also its biggest Shia one. It also houses the largest Ismaili and Dawoodi Bohra communities in the country. Parsis, Goan Christians and Hindus are all major partners in its cultural and economic life.

This election cycle, the city has finally got what it lacked: an election in which every citizen of Karachi can take part without feeling discriminated against, threatened or coerced. While various political parties have always tried to challenge Karachi’s largest political force, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (now registered as MQM-Pakistan), in previous elections, many a time those challenges were drowned out by one-sided results — polling station after polling station, constituency after constituency.

Karachi has the highest number of National Assembly constituencies. One in every 13 seats in the National Assembly is in Karachi.

This time round, it appears to be different. Rather than discussing no-go areas for other parties in MQM’s strongholds, politicians are talking lightheartedly about such trivial issues as chewing paan. The reference to paan, first made by former Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif during a campaign event in Karachi, can be a serious indicator of the state of our political discourse: no party has come up with a well-thought out plan to address Karachi’s multiple economic, social, environmental and administrative issues but, instead, every party is focused on how to grab the seats that a split MQM may not be able to win any more.

The city also has the highest number of National Assembly constituencies. One in every 13 seats in the National Assembly is in Karachi. If nothing else, this number should offer political parties an incentive to invest themselves in the city in order to win as many of these seats as they can.

Many important electoral changes have also taken place in the city since the last election. It now has six districts instead of the five that it had in 2013 and it also has one additional National Assembly seat.

A look at the city’s constituencies suggest that electoral opportunities for non-ethnic parties may have expanded. In district Malir, for instance, only one seat – mostly comprising Karachi’s rural outskirts – has an overwhelming majority of Sindhi and Baloch voters. The other two have a mix of Sindhi, Baloch, Pakhtun, Punjabi and Urdu-speaking communities.

PPP is looking to win at least two of these seats — NA-236 and NA-237. It may win the former rather easily though on the latter it will face competition possibly from every party in the city including Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and MMA. It enjoys an advantage in the sense that its candidate, Hakeem Baloch, was a winner (originally as a PMLN candidate) from many areas now a part of this constituency.

The next constituency, NA-238, has large pockets of PPP support but its diverse population has encouraged candidates of all types to throw their lots in here. One of them, Aurangzeb Farooqi of the Rah-e-Haq Party (another reincarnation of the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan), is seen as a serious contender here. Another important contender here is Shahi Syed, the head of ANP in Sindh. His presence suggests the presence of a sizeable Pakhtun vote in the constituency.

District East’s NA-244 has also become a multi-ethnic constituency that may go to any party. Two other seats in this district, NA-242 and NA-245, mostly have Urdu-speaking contestants and could also go MQMP’s way. Two of the most well-known politicians in the city, Farooq Sattar and Amir Liaqat Hussain, are competing in NA-245, respectively on the tickets of MQM-Pakistan and PTI (which has some serious support among Pakhtun communities living in the constituency).

The district’s last seat, NA-243, has gained a lot of media attention because Imran Khan is contesting in it against MQMP’s Syed Ali Raza Abidi (who may have a small edge against other contenders). Another notable candidate in this constituency is PPP’s Shehla Raza who was deputy speaker in the Sindh Assembly in 2008-13.

District Korangi’s three seats have major concentrations of Urdu-speaking population. The competition here will be among MQM-Pakistan, MQM-Haqiqi and PSP though PTI, PPP and MMA are also trying their luck here. MQMP, at the end of the day, may win all of these three seats.

District South used to have three constituencies but now has two and both of them are often in the news: NA-246, because Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is a contestant in it (and also because he has received unexpected resistance in one of its neighbourhoods while campaigning here); and NA-247, because it includes Defence and Clifton, two of the city’s richest areas, alongside some of Karachi’s slummiest slums (and also because it was here that voter resistance pushed MQM to the defensive and helped a PTI candidate snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat).

District Central’s four constituencies, NA-253, NA-254, NA-255 and NA-256, are being contested mostly by Urdu-speaking candidates though they come from a variety of parties. The main contests will be between MQMP and PSP and may result in victory for the former’s candidates though their victory margins will not be as big as they used be in the days of MQM’s domination. A notable, though not strong, candidate in NA-256 is actor Sajid Hasan who is running on a PPP ticket.

District West, that starts from around Karachi Port and ends up joining Malir, will also see some intense fights — and many of them may not feature MQMP as a main contender. This is already apparent in NA-249 where Shehbaz Sharif is contesting without having to face a serious MQM-Pakistan challenger. Like in parts of Malir and East districts, this district, too, will see a roster of successful candidates that is not dominated by a single party and also not by those belonging to a single community.

Moosa Kaleem, Subuk Hasnain and Momina Manzoor Khan are staffers at the Herald. Bilal Karim Mughal is a multimedia producer at Dawn.com. Manor Genani is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer.

This article was published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.