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July 17, 2018

Key factors in Karachi politics


July 17, 2018

Election campaigns have entered into a crucial and decisive phase with only eight days left for Election-2018 and yet no one knows who will win Karachi.

Unlike in the past when ethnic factor dominated the politics due to deep polarisation of ‘rural-urban’ divide, the deteriorating civic conditions in the city emerged as key issue, but three factors which can change the dynamics will be the new voters, youth and families beside the ‘silent vote’.

Campaign have already picked up pace with a big public meeting of the MMA on Sunday, to be followed by the visit of Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif, who will be address the public rallies on July 21 and 22.

The new look MQM-P and two years old Pak-Sarzameen Party, PSP will be holding public meetings on July 23, the last day of the campaign.

It is also for the first time the two possible contenders for the premiership are contesting from here ie Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif, beside Bilawal Bhutto Zardari making an election debut from PPP’s traditional constituency Lyari. Interestingly, Imran too had made his election debut from here in 1997 but lost. Bilawal is most likely to win and it will be interesting to see vote margin as the PPP vote bank in the constituency has declined in the last few elections.

Karachi’s politics for decades revolved around some of the traditional ‘factors’ like ethnic, religious and lack of interest of national parties towards Karachi, resulted in polarised politics on the basis of ‘rural-urban’ divide.

However in 2013, a change was felt with the addition of new voters and their interest in electoral politics. They not only got themselves registered but also got active and went to polling stations in large numbers.

The interest of youth and families particularly women have now forced the parties not to merely rely on corner meetings and public rallies but to go door-to-door and answer tough questions. How much difference will it make on the outcome of the result would be witnessed on July 25. It had left some impact in 2013 and could be more visible this time.

There is a sizable number of ‘silent votes’ in the present elections due to the MQM split in the MQM-dominated constituencies. Their decision would be crucial particularly for parties like MQM, PSP, MMA, but if they decided to stay at home it could go to the advantage of PTI, PPP, PML-N, TLP and to some extent ANP. The traditional factors have not yet died down. It has its own relevance even today, in view of the ethnic dimensions of Sindh’s politics.

Never before the party that formed the government at the centre and in Sindh got majority seats from Karachi. Can any of the three parties PTI, PML-N or PPP create history this time or will it be business as usual and most of the main parties would share these 21 seats.

After 2017 controversial population census, the number of National Assembly seats increased from 20 to 21 and provincial assembly seats to 44. Delimitation of the constituencies may help the PPP in increasing its number of seats from two or three to four or five NA seats.

Thus Election-2018 could be the combination of these factors and whichever party would exploit the situation better will have an additional advantage in the polls.

Local bodies’ issues also dominate Karachi’s election like in other parts of country in the absence of strong local bodies system. Deteriorating civic conditions like water, electricity, transport, roads etc will also play a role in changing people’s mind. Therefore, the issue of making Karachi a true metropolitan city and empowering local bodies also dominated the campaign in the last 15 days.

Since Karachi in the last 45 years had either been controlled by religious parties or ethnic parties, its roots are very much there besides Karachi’s isolation from the national mainstream politics since the presidential elections of Ayub Khan vs Fatima Jinnah.

The defeat of Fatima Jinnah pushed Karachi voters away from national politics and they switched to religious parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, before posing confidence on the MQM, because of deep ethnic polarisation. These factors are very much part of urban politics. A new-look MQM-P is still using ‘Mohajir card’ in a bid to reunite its vote bank.

It is good to see that for the first time heads of three national parties are contesting for the first time in one election ie Imran Khan, Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto. They are in the race from different constituencies but who will retain their Karachi seat as they are also contesting from their home constituencies ie Mianwali, Lahore and Larkana.

The youth factor has given a slight edge to Imran over others in few constituencies but it will be interesting to see how much the PTI will improve its position. It had won one NA seat and three direct provincial assembly seats last time.

The PML-N took a bold decision by bringing Shahbaz Sharif and is confident of his victory. Even if he did not win the very decision to contest from here could help the party in future.

The split in the strong and organised ‘Mohajir voters’ have opened space for other parties and it will be interesting to see whether the split vote goes in favour of PTI, MMA or PSP.

This factor will be decisive as in the past the united vote enabled the MQM to sweep polls and even if they had not used ‘muscle power’ to increase their number of votes or lose few seats, they would still be the leading party.

In the present scenario, MQM-P has the biggest stake and challenge and they are desperately trying in their strong constituencies to keep the ‘vote bank’ intact. If they succeeded they would be satisfied if they manage six to seven seats. They are still relying on ‘ethnic factor’, which also reflected from its manifesto calling for more ‘administrative units’ or provinces.

It would be wrong to assess the present MQM from the one which swept from 1988 to 2013 except in 2002 when it lost six seats to the MMA.

Pak Sarzameen Party is offering a middle road to Mohajir vote bank to return to mainstream politics and their campaign looked quite organised as well. Led by former mayor Mustafa Kamal and an organiser like Anis Qaimkhani, the PSP is confident of taking more seats than the MQM.

Religious parties always have strong vote in this city but despite JI, JUP and JUI-F joining hands and contesting from the platform of the MMA they would be satisfied if they regain 2002 position when it won six seats from Karachi and two from Hyderabad. A factor within the religious parties which can put MMA candidates in difficult position is Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) of Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Hafiz Saeed- backed Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek of Dr Ahsan Bari. The TLP in particular has made inroads into Memon community and traders. They are also working hard to gain from Karachi and Hyderabad beside Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Since no party so far played the role in bridging the gap between rural and urban Sindh, the ethnic factor still dominates political landscape of Karachi but the voters might be thinking for the possible change in the absence of the united MQM. Will they go for a change this time and if so in favour of which party will be interesting to watch.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.  

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO