The local government elections can reshape Karachi’s political dynamics
he local government elections in Karachi division, postponed once more, may have a few surprises for all political stakeholders. Some of the parties, long believed to have been out of contention, may just get lucky in the forthcoming elections. Meanwhile, the party that once ruled the city unopposed, could find out that its support base has depleted.
The elections, originally scheduled for July 24, were delayed due to massive rainfall across the province. The disastrous spell continued till the end of August. However, following the catastrophic flooding across the province, the provincial government requested the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to postpone the elections, citing shortage of security personnel and logistics. Thus, the polls were postponed until October 23.
A similar request was made in October. The polls have now been postponed for an indefinite period. The ECP says it will hold another meeting in 15 days to review its decision.
The local elections can reshape Karachi’s political dynamics; even have an impact on the general elections in the coming year.
In the last local polls, in 2015, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) won a majority of the union councils in the city, thereby securing the offices of mayor and deputy mayor. It also won four out of six district chairmen seats.
The MQM was then at the receiving end of a crackdown. Its voters and supporters were emotionally charged, according to some analysts on account of the law enforcing agencies’ attitude towards the party and its workers.
The MQM took a major blow. The party’s leadership in Pakistan had to disown and denounce their chief’s narrative. Later, the organisation split into several entities.
This created a gulf between the party establishment and its supporters. Some of its dedicated supporters resolved to lie low until the party was rehabilitated to an acceptable status.
A senior member of the party, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that the party’s “internal weaknesses” were the reason it had to accept dictation from powerful external quarters. He says that the party did not voluntarily decide to join the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) led government in 2018. However, he says that the decision to leave the government was ‘mostly’ their own. He says that the party is not allowed currently to freely participate in Karachi’s politics.
“From the recent appointment of Governor Kamran Tessori to the MQM minister in the federal cabinet, we have not been making the decisions on our own. We have been doing what we are asked to do. There is an apprehension that even the slightest resistance can land us in trouble.”
Such justifications for unpopular decisions being trotted out by various MQM leaders are not being bought by their supporters. Predictably, party members are not confident about their performance in the coming polls.
“The back-to-back electoral losses suffered by the MQM-Pakistan, even in constituencies dominated by Mohajir voters indicate that things are headed south for it. Presumed MQM supporters are either voting for the PTI or are not voting at all. This may well be because of the fact that the MQM-P no longer has a viable political narrative,” says journalist Ebad Ahmed, who has covered Karachi’s political landscape for several years.
Ebad says that the party has turned into a version of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid. Anything short of a radical revamp of party structure and policies will make it difficult for it to maintain its electoral significance for long, he says.
Ahmed says that the MQM-P might witness one of its worst performances in the upcoming local polls. A large chunk of its loyal voters might defect to other parties.
“There is a clear leadership void; that is the biggest challenge,” he says. He says MQM supporters do not consider the current leadership capable of leading the party.
Taha Ahmed Khan, the recently inducted MQM-P Rabita Committee member, says that the party is currently a part of the federal government but not the provincial government. He says the party chose this alignment “for the sake of the city’s welfare”. He says they did not demand to be inducted into the provincial government. “We only want an authentic census, delimitation in accordance with law and implementation of Article 140-A of the constitution.”
The young politician adds that they have reached an agreement with the PDM. “We did this so that the people of Karachi understand that our demands are in their interest. These include an empowered local government system for urban Sindh.” He further adds: “it is unfortunate that to have the Supreme Court order implemented, we had to take an unpopular decision to negotiate with the PPP.”
He says that the PTI had violated the agreement they had reached with them when the party was in power. Khan says that not a single demand made by the MQM was met by the PTI-led government.
Khan is confident that if delimitation are done according to law and elections held without gerrymandering, the MQM will turn out to be the most popular party in the city.
The Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) are seriously gearing up for the local elections. While the PPP is seen by some as seeking a postponement, the JI cannot wait for them.
The youthful city administrator appointed by the PPP has mobilised the party in some of the most neglected districts of the city, District Central, and initiated some development schemes.
Senator Masroor Ahsan, a senior PPP leader from an Urdu-speaking background, has been appointed as the party president for District Central. He has mobilised the party in the former MQM hub and has been seen inaugurating parks and roads and overseeing renovations.
The Sindh government has started work on several development schemes in the city. It has started the construction of another bus rapid transport project after the launch of the Green Line BRT. It has also introduced a fleet of buses on various underserved routes.
It may seem that the party has sorted itself out. It appears to be cashing in on development by advertising recent projects.
But is that enough for success in the local government elections?
Journalist Mazhar Abbas is of the view that these development projects are “temporary measures and will not yield enough for the party.”
To convince a disillusioned citizenry that the PPP is the messiah they have been waiting for, he says, the party has to provide an empowered local government system. He says that with such a system in place, the party will not be in need of cosmetic measures. “The party will then automatically attract voters.”
Abbas accuses the PPP of never wanting to empower the local governments, and wanting to keep power consolidated at the provincial level. This is against the spirit of the 18th Amendment, he says. He also hints at the possibility of the PPP-led Sindh government using the bureaucracry to get ahead in the upcoming elections.
Journalist Zia-ur Rehman says that gerrymandering of electoral constituencies is not new. Previously, he says, the MQM had managed a similar exercise to its advantage.
With the MQM losing its political hold, the PPP saw its chance, he says. Rehman says that in the previous local government elections, the MQM had managed to win the chairmanship and vice-chairmanship in District West, defeating a six-party coalition including the PPP, the PTI, the JI, and the ANP.
The Sindh government, he says, has now divided the district in two. District Kemari has thus been separated from the Urdu-speaking majority left in the District West. Meanwhile, some other areas where Urdu-speaking people are in a minority have also been merged into the new Kemari district, where the PPP has a stronghold.
In rural areas of the city, he says, where the PPP has a strong hold, they have established a larger number of union councils than the population warrants. In urban centres where the party is not popular, he says they have established a smaller number of union councils.
This implies that the PPP is confident about its chances in the previously held districts i.e., South and Malir and the recently added Kemari district. That’s three out of seven districts.
For its part, the Jamaat-i-Islami too appears confident and optimistic. The party has been aggressively vocal about civic issues faced by Karachiites. It has also led several protest demonstrations recently. It has also massively mobilised its social media wing.
The party’s Karachi chief Hafiz Naeem ur Rehman is quite popular among the youth. This is largely due to the growing frustration among the citizens on account of poor city infrastructure.
Rehman has a huge social media following. He has appeared in several digital media podcasts and has clearly put his message out in the public.
However, the JI has traditionally had a problem with turning this support into votes. Apart from this major obstacle, the JI is sufficiently popular in the city to be a major contender.
The PTI is currently enjoying a popularity wave. In the previous local government elections, it had done poorly. Most of its senior leaders had lost from their respective UCs. However, writing the PTI off in any election would be naïve.
The nature of local government elections is different from that of general elections. The national level narratives are difficult to sell at the local level. Also, the voters prefer local candidates in local elections.
Lacking a party structure and organisation, the PTI may not be able to convert its current popularity into votes polled for its candidates. Regardless, votes cast in its favour will ultimately be due to its popularity at the national level more than anything else.
Since the MQM, a once major political player, continues to lose popularity, the local governments formed following the elections might be led by more than one party. The Pakistan Peoples Party may be one of those.
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist who covers politics, human rights and environment. He tweets at @sheharyaralii