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The second and the third phase of the local government (LG) elections on November 19 and December 5, respectively are the toughest for Muttahida Qaumi Movement. However, stakes are also high for its close rivals, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), who are contesting LG polls jointly in Hyderabad and Karachi.
The outcome of these elections will have its repercussions too, on the ethnic dimension of this sensitive province, as the real political game over distribution of powers would start after completion of the three phases.
Hyderabad’s political dynamics are different from Karachi. In the last 30 years, its voter had switched from religious parties to MQM, but the ethnic division felt more in Hyderabad than in Karachi. Hyderabad had produced some dedicated leaders in LGs, like the late Maulana Wasi Mazhar Nadvi, the late Ahad Yusuf, Aftab Ahmad Sheikh and Kanwar Naveed Jamil (now an MNA from Karachi).
However, the dilemma of this historic city has been that neither religious parties nor MQM could revive the strong cultural and academic values of Hyderabad.
Due to polarised politics, the impact is also felt in other urban centres like Mirpurkhas, Nawabshah, Sanghar, Badin and Tharparkar. That could be one of the reasons why Sindh politics is largely divided between the PPP and MQM camps.
The PTI staged its entry in Sindh politics in 2013, but it was surprising that its chief Imran Khan did not even touch Hyderabad in the second phase.
Another important aspect of these polls would be the standing of Altaf Hussain among “Muhajirs”. Did he still holds the support and has the cult or lost the charisma to some extent.
Therefore, it is important to see these polls in the circumstances in which they are being held particularly in the backdrop of “Karachi operation”.
Altaf Hussain faced unprecedented ban as the media can neither print nor broadcast his statements or interviews. Even his photograph or visuals are
not allowed to go on air. The ban was imposed a few months back by the Lahore High Court, over some of his controversial speeches, which did not go well with the establishment circles.
The MQM is expecting a repeat of NA-246, Azizabad by-election, held in April. It won the by-poll by a huge margin and silenced its critics, who accused MQM of winning elections through use of power. But, its opponents - the JI and PTI, are also confident of giving it a few surprises.
However, the MQM knows that LG polls are altogether different and difficult contest. In the absence of ‘fireworks’ from Altaf Hussain, its campaign is led by former mayor of Karachi, Dr Farooq Sattar, who himself is a hard campaigner.
The main challengers, JI and PTI, have joined hands, while the PPP is also focusing on its safe pockets in the two cities. However, the PPP is facing few problems in its stronghold, Lyari.
Altaf’s ‘charisma’ would be tested first on Nov 19 in Hyderabad, Nawabshah, Mirpurkhas, Tharparkar and then on Dec 5 in Pakistan’s economic hub, Karachi. Is the MQM still unchallenged would be interesting to watch.
When MQM last contested LG elections in 2005, they faced criticism of enjoying the unprecedented support of the establishment. But the fact remains that under city nazim Mustafa Kamal, it carried out lots of development works in Karachi, which were even praised by his opponents.
But this time, the MQM is contesting against all odds i.e. establishment, federal and Sindh governments, which have made the election the toughest for them.
Similarly, the JI is also running its campaign on the basis of the development works, carried out under its mayor Naimatullah Khan, after it won LG polls in 2001. The MQM had boycotted those elections.
In contrast to 2005, it faced tough opposition in the 2013 general elections from the PTI. It won all major seats, but the PTI secured eight lakh votes, which had alerted the MQM and Altaf Hussain.
However, what happened soon after 2013, reflect MQM’s poor political strategy due to which many of its prominent leaders either left the party or were sidelined. It also could not bridge the gap with the PML-N, unlike in the past.
Within months after the elections, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif launched “Karachi Targeted Action”. Both the PPP and MQM supported the operation against terrorists, but things started changing after Dec-16 Army Public School Peshawar massacre, followed by the National Action Plan (NAP) and Protection of Pakistan Ordinance. In Sindh, Rangers were given additional powers to arrest and investigate the accused.
Saulat Mirza’s video interview from the “death cell” caused sensation in the media. Although he was ultimately hanged on the charge of killing former home secretary Shahid Hamid, the interview itself left many questions “unanswered”, after his JIT, which was never pursued.
A controversial speech of Altaf Hussain in Hyderabad in January, which triggered controversy because of his harsh criticism of the military establishment, further aggravated the situation for the MQM and the “writing was on the wall”, what to come in the coming months.
In March, the raid on the MQM Secretariat and the adjacent areas from where some suspected target-killers were also arrested. This was followed by the arrest of many sector and unit in-charges of the party. The MQM found itself in an extremely difficult position and they left with no choice but to close its offices.
Throughout these operations, Rangers took a firm position that their target were only criminals and those involved in target-killings and extortion and it has nothing to do with the MQM politics.
In April by-elections, the thumping victory of MQM proved two things: (1) MQM hold on electoral politics and (2) Rangers’ stand vindicated.
Now, if one sees the situation in this background, except for the ban on Altaf’s speech, which one believes needs a review, things have improved for the MQM. He or any other politician may not be allowed making speeches or pass remarks against the armed forces, but that does not mean that the leader’s other statements should also be banned.
On the other hand, the alliance between the PTI and JI could lead to providing them with the best opportunity and they could expect a change in the mindset of Urdu-speaking community particularly in Hyderabad and Karachi.
These elections in two major cities of urban Sindh attached so much importance that the heads of PTI and JI, Imran Khan and Sirajul Haq, have practically made Karachi their base camp. Imran has already stated that he would lead the campaign in the city while the JI Amir has laid the foundation of yet another youth wing of the party. In the past, the JI had Passban and Shabab-e-Milli youth wings.
Since the JI has emerged as the main challenger after the PTI failed to capitalise the vote they got in 2013, because of intra party rivalries, Jamaat got the major share in the seat adjustments with the PTI.
Both JI and MQM had won polls twice in Karachi. In 1983, but the late Abdus Sattar Afghani still holds the record of winning election of mayor twice, while Naimatullah, Dr Farooq Sattar and Mustafa Kamal won the seat once.
Similarly, in Hyderabad, the late Maulana Wasi Mazhar Nadvi, the late Ahad Yusuf, Aftab Sheikh and Kanwar Naveed became mayor or city nazim only once.
But till 1987, there was no major challengers for the JI, except the PPP, who almost got its mayor elected in 1979, but mostly got deputy mayors.
Therefore, the MQM was not even born when Afghani became the mayor and Naimatullah Advocate as a result of the MQM boycott in 2001.
In 1987, a year after the MQM was formally launched, it swept polls both in Karachi and Hyderabad. Dr Farooq Sattar became its first mayor in Karachi and Aftab Sheikh in Hyderabad. In 1991, elections were not held as former chief minister, the late Jam Sadiq Ali, feared the PPP would win in interior of Sindh. This was followed by 1992 operation and later 1994 operation and then governor’s rule was imposed in Sindh in 1998.
In 2002 general elections, the MQM got the biggest setback and the JI-led Muttahida Majlis-e-Aml (MMA) won six MNA seats from Karachi.
But, the MQM staged a comeback and won the next LG polls and defeated the JI, with Mustafa Kamal elected as the city nazim. The MQM also revived its position in 2008 general elections and retained its position in 2013 elections as well.
Thus, in this backdrop the local government elections in Hyderabad would be the first test of the MQM, after the ongoing operation.
On Nov 19, it will be MQM vs. the rest of the parties including JI-PTI, PPP, JUI and JUP in Hyderabad. While it will be the first LG polls for the PTI, the JI and the JUP had dominated politics of this city in the 1970s.
However, the political dynamics of Hyderabad and some other cities of interior Sindh, where large number of Urdu-speaking are settled, had changed after the MQM emerged as the sole representative of urban Sindh.
Its victory in local governments set the tone and it also swept National and provincial assembly elections in 1988. It never looked back but after few years, they were accused of winning polls by force, the charge which the MQM denies.
So, where the Muhajir voters will go this time on Nov 19? The MQM has also fielded candidates in Nawabshah, Mirpurkhas, Hyderabad and reached an understanding with the anti-PPP front in some other cities.
Apparently, the MQM vote is still for Altaf, and the party still seeks vote in his name. Even some of its opponents conceded that the MQM is playing three major cards: (1) Muhajir (2) Muzloom and (3) insecurity card.
On the other hand, the PTI-JI major card is “change for better”, reassuring Muhajir voters in particular that they would serve them better. This alliance is a combination of liberal and conservative. In Karachi, its programme is for a “better Karachi”.
However, polarisation in Sindh on ethnic basis still has its roots and it would be a real test for the JI-PTI. How they would cope with this situation and satisfy the Muhajir voters. But, problems with the MQM is more “within” as it is for the first time they are contesting without some former party leaders from Hyderabad.
Contesting against all odds and combined opposition, the MQM apparently still has an upper hand particularly in Hyderabad and Karachi.
The elections in the urban Sindh would be fought more on political issues rather on complete collapse of municipal corporations.
These two elections can also be called rehearsal for the next general elections. If the MQM can’t afford defeat here, it would also be a setback for the JI-PTI alliance particularly after their poor performance in Punjab and interior Sindh in the first phase. This election will also set the tone for future political dynamics of urban-rural divide as both PPP and MQM aimed to consolidate their respective positions.
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.