The mayhem around polling

January 22, 2023

A close look at the local government elections in Karachi

The mayhem around polling

The second phase of the local government elections in Sindh concluded on Sunday. In Karachi and Hyderabad, the voter turnout was predictably low.

The results issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) indicate that, for the first time in the history of local government elections in the city, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has won the most seats. The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) has placed a close second and the Pakistan-Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) third.

Since its inception, the Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), has been the favourite to win local polls. It swept the local government elections of 1987 and won a majority of the seats in the elections held in 2005 and 2015.

One of the major reasons for the PPP’s success is the boycott of polls called by the recently-unified MQM-P announced at the eleventh hour. The party decided to sit out the elections over the rejection of its demand for fresh delimitations.

The results were announced almost 30 hour after the polling had ended. Both the JI and the PTI have accused the provincial government of rigging and the ECP of collusion.

Election Results

On Tuesday, the ECP announced unofficial results for 235 union councils in the Karachi division. The PPP it said had won 91 seats, the JI 88 and the PTI 40.

The PML-N had won seven seats from the metropolitan and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and independent candidates three seats each. The Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) got two.

The Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM-H), a breakaway faction of the MQM, won only one UC seat. Earlier, the party representatives had voiced reservations about delimitations but clarified that they were not going to merge with the MQM-P.

Drawing comparisons

The 2023 elections will be the third electoral exercise culminating in the election of a mayor and a local council.

The last time this happened was in 2015 when the MQM-P had won the most seats. Waseem Akhtar, the MQM nominee was then elected the mayor.

A comparison of the 2015 and 2023 results suggests that the political landscape of the city has shifted significantly. With the MQM-P withdrawing from the race, the PPP, the JI and the PTI have emerged as the major stakeholders. In 2015, it had been the MQM, the PPP and the PML-N in that order.

The data indicate a great leap for the PPP which has won more than double the number of seats it had won in the last election. This is attributable, at least in part, to the conspicuous absence of the MQM-P which had bagged 54.7 percent of the seats in 2015.

The JI too has made phenomenal progress across the seven districts. Compared to the 2015 elections, in which the party had clinched only 2.8 per cent of the seats, it has now won more than 37 percent of the UC seats.

The PTI has secured 17 per cent of the seats, an improvement over its performance in the 2015 elections in which it had won about 4 per cent of the seats. The JUI-F, too, has seen a nominal rise in its share.

The TLP, contesting its first local government elections in Karachi, has also won two seats, accounting for 0.9 per cent of the total.

The PML-N has yielded ground. In the last elections, the party had won more than eight percent of the seats. This time, its share has declined to a mere three percent.

There has also been a sharp decline in the percentage of seats won by independent candidates. While the MQM-H has won a seat, the Awami National Party (ANP) have been wiped out.

Election day

The polling concluded peacefully for the most part. Only a few incidents of violence were reported across the city.

The voter turnout was low. According to the Free and Fair Election Network, it was below 20 percent in the city with the exception of the Malir district.

Confirming a low voter turnout especially in the initial hours of the polling, Syed Sibt-i-Hassan Rizvi a reporter covering the elections, told TNS, “among the reasons for a low voter turnout was the fact that the MQM-P announced a boycott. Another was the cold wave that gripped the city.”

Rizvi said that polling agents were altogether absent from some stations. “Not just the voters but the polling staff was also missing at these stations during the early hours.” According to Rizvi, a general lack of preparation marked the electoral process. “After the staff set up, they requested the media to record videos of sealed ballot boxes as the first voters arrived to vote,” he added.

A few days before the elections, the MQM-P had announced its merger with the Pak Sarzameen Party, led by former mayor, Mustafa Kamal, and Dr Farooq Sattar’s MQM-P Bahali Committee. This development, followed by the call for boycott created an air of uncertainty about when the elections would be held, if at all.

“A majority of the citizens were unaware till late Saturday night that the elections were being held,” said Rizvi. He said this air of uncertainty prevented the voter turnout from inching up. “And so it happened that in a city of over 20 million, only a few thousand appeared to have come out to vote,” he commented

The voters’ views were mixed. Quratulain, a homemaker and a mother of two, said that she did not vote. “It is a futile activity, a waste of time,” she said. “By now, it is clear to us [residents of Karachi] that nobody is committed to making the city more livable,” she said.

Adeel Tayyab, a Karachi-based journalist who cast his vote in the Central district along with his family, partly agreed with Quratulain. “It is true that Karachi is facing many problems, most of which have gone unaddressed by the provincial government,” said Tayyab. “That is why I’m using my voting power,” he reasoned. “I’m hoping for a dedicated leadership that can cater to our issues,” he added.

Reports of clashes between the supporters of the JI, the PTI and the PPP were received from some polling stations. Scuffles broke out between PTI and PPP workers in Kemari and Korangi districts and PPP and JI sympathisers clashed in Gulshan-i-Iqbal.

On Wednesday, Kemari was tense as an anti-rigging protest by the PTI escalated into a brawl with PPP supporters in front of the DRO office. An MPA belonging to the PTI was arrested on the charge of attacking PPP supporters. Some other workers of the party were also detained briefly.

The road leading up to the local government elections in the metropolitan had been a rocky one. The last local government had completed its term in August 2020. For about two and a half years, Pakistan’s largest city did not have a mayor or local council representatives.

While the first phase of the local government elections commenced in June 2022, the second phase was delayed thrice; first on account of torrential rains, then the floods and the third time to allow more time for electoral preparations. The much-awaited elections were held after the ECP rejected the provincial government’s plea to further delay the elections.

‘Rigging under way’

The Election Commission of Pakistan took an unusually long time to compile and issue the unofficial results, drawing criticism from most quarters.

JI emir Hafiz Naeem-ur Rehman alleged that the elections were marred by foul play. He alleged that the PPP, with the ECP collusion, had tampered the results.

Voicing concern about electoral transparency, the JI mayoral candidate said that ‘rigging was under way’ in the city. He also claimed that the JI had won a majority of the seats.

Initial results issued by the ECP had suggested that the JI had won 86 seats. The number later rose to 88 seats. The party decided then to stage a string of anti-rigging protests across the country.

The JI also filed complaints with the ECP which, on Wednesday, confirmed that it was taking notice of the ‘alleged irregularities’ in six UCs.

The PTI, too, rejected the results. PTI Sindh president Syed Ali Haider Zaidi claimed on Monday that the elections were rigged and ‘political engineering’ was taking place. “The elections were peaceful but let’s not forget that these were peacefully rigged elections,” he said.

Later, PTI supremo Imran Khan slammed the PPP in a tweet, claiming that the local government elections were rigged using force, blackmail, police intimidation and bribes. “The LG polls show that the PPP government has no commitment to free and fair elections,” he wrote.

“We can say that the overall performance of the Election Commission was below par,” said Sayyidah Fizzah Shakil, a senior broadcast journalist who covered the elections. “While the ECP claimed that the Sindh Election Commission was fully prepared, there were reports that the polling staff did not reach the stations on time,” she said. “Also, it took hours for some of the election paraphernalia to arrive at the polling stations,” she added.

Speaking of the delay in the announcement of results, she said, “It took more than 30 hours for the ECP to issue results. It is obvious that the ECP was ill-prepared.” She said rigging was reported from some polling stations.

Picking the mayor

The focus has now shifted to addressing the question of who will be the next mayor.

On Tuesday, Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah informed the media that elections for the posts of mayor, deputy mayor, district chairman and the city, district and town municipal councils and reserved seats will be held within a month.

The PPP reached out to the JI to discuss the possibility of forming an alliance prior to the mayoral elections. The JI has also been approached by PTI representatives. However, the party has remained adamant it wants ‘fair election results’ first.

“The party is willing only to hold a dialogue once its concerns about the fairness of the polls have been addressed. We want recognition of our mandate,” Hafiz Naeem told the media shortly after receiving a PPP delegation.

Earlier, PPP’s Saeed Ghani had said that his party was ready to discuss the election of a mayor with the JI but ruled out an alliance with the PTI.

Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) city council comprises 367 members, including 121 indirectly elected ones (81 women and 12 youth besides labour, religious minorities, transgenders and differently-abled).

After the election to these reserved seats, the 367 members of the council will elect the mayor and deputy Mayor. While PPP has the most seats, it cannot appoint a mayor on its own.

To appoint a mayor, a party needs 179 out of 356 seats. After factoring in the reserved seats, the PPP will likely have about 140 seats, the JI 135 and the PTI 60.

Since the PPP and the PTI have both ruled out an alliance with each other, JI’s choice will be critical.

The author is a Karachi-based journalist. She tweets @asifaidris

The mayhem around polling