Thursday June 20, 2024

Karachi: who’s the winner?

By Jaffer Abbas Mirza
January 31, 2023

The long-awaited local government elections in Sindh were finally conducted. These elections should have happened years ago, and the delay and lack of interest in strengthening local bodies expose how serious our democratic parties, particularly the PPP, are when it comes to paying attention to people’s needs.

The PPP has shown quite a few times that, while it wants to champion autonomy at the federal level, it is reluctant to devolve power in Sindh, where the party has been ruling for over 14 years now.

One interesting element of the recent local government elections is that every party is claiming it has performed well and is ready to appoint its mayor. But a look at the voter turnout – which is not more than 20 per cent and with no clear majority – shows that every party has its share of failure.

The PPP has so far won the most seats (93) and is ahead of other parties. It is definitely a gain and a comeback for the PPP as the party always struggled to win seats in Karachi. Credit should go to the party’s Karachi’s leadership and administrator who ran an impressive campaign and highlighted the PPP-led Sindh government’s recent development progress such as People’s Bus Services. However, when one looks at the advantages the PPP has over other parties, the results of the elections call for more contemplation than celebration.

Not only is the PPP the biggest beneficiary of the new MQM – which has been cut into multiple factions – it has also took advantage of the latest ‘gerrymandering’ exercise, where new UCs were carved in areas with a stronghold of the PPP, reducing UCs where it has little political clout. It is an unending debate whether the PPP took advantage of delimitation conducted by the ECP, but the one advantage the PPP will always have is the lack of a level playing field in Sindh.

Also, since the PPP forms the provincial government, it can use state resources to run political ads (using taxpayer money) to portray the Sindh government’s performances for its elections campaign. Therefore, from delimitation to provincial machinery, the PPP had all the advantages. But it could manage to win only 93 seats, a number which is still not enough for the party to bring its mayor. A question is: if these advantages are taken away from the PPP, will it be able to secure the same number of seats?

As far as the MQM-P is concerned, its decision to boycott the local government elections was reasonable as it saved the party from further humiliation. Regardless of its reservations about delimitation, the party had an idea – based on the results of the previous by-elections – that they would lose. The issue with the MQM-P is that they have failed to create a unique vote base that could give them an edge. So until they sort out what they have to offer to old MQM voters, they will need to hide behind the boycott tactics.

The PTI is probably the only party that has suffered a real blow. The party’s poor performance is partly due to the fact that it takes Karachi voters for granted and thinks the party’s chairperson’s persona is enough to win votes. This might have worked even this time had the party had the same level of support from the country’s powerful quarters that it enjoyed in 2018. But things have changed as have the election results for the PTI.

An issue with the PTI Karachi team is that it has failed to campaign on issues that the people of Karachi find relatable. The issues and politics of Karachi are different from those of Islamabad and Punjab. And, therefore, narratives such as foreign conspiracies, an imported government, etc, are least appealing. People in Karachi are more concerned about issues like water scarcity, waste management, law and order, appalling infrastructure and safety.

Also, Karachi is a multi-ethnic city, and every ethnic group has its genuine grievances such as discrimination in the public sector and development. Other parties such as the PPP, the MQM and the Jamaat-e-Islami use city-centric issues in their everyday politics, unlike the PTI which peddles oft-repeated non-relatable rhetoric.

One should admit that the JI has performed better in the elections. Its campaign was impressive on every level. In June 2021, it staged a city-wide sit-in against KE’s poor management and continued to hold rallies on the city’s pressing issues. In the last three years, the JI maintained its public visibility and tried to become a party that not only understands the issues of Karachi but also wants to convey them to authorities through sit-ins and protests. Its social media campaign was also well-planned: Hafiz Naeemur Rehman appeared on every leading YouTube channel and in videos with influencers, which appealed to middle and upper-middle-class voters.

Whether the JI was a genuine choice or people voted for it out of frustration – ‘boycott’ calls, disappointment with the MQM-P and the PTI, and dislike for the PPP – the answer is somewhere in-between. However, the pertinent question is: can the JI deliver? It will be difficult even if it wants to. The weak local government and the PPP’s reluctance to devolve power will be a great challenge.

The JI – even if it brings its mayor with the help of the PTI or makes an alliance with the PPP – will remain dependent on the PPP’s disposal of releasing funds and power.

It seems the JI will replace the MQM and enter into a love-hate relationship with the PPP, which also means that the city will suffer and nobody will take responsibility. So the real losers of this election is the people of Karachi who will continue to live under uncertainty and witness (yet again) the unending quagmire between the provincial and weak local governments.

The writer is a senior research coordinator at the Department of Anthropology, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. He tweets @jafferamirza