A controversial appointment

July 25, 2021

Despite opposition from major political parties, particularly the PTI and the MQM, the Sindh cabinet has approved the appointment of Wahab as Karachi administrator

A controversial appointment

The recent decision to appoint Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP)s Murtaza Wahab as the new administrator of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) has restarted the debate on how to govern the city of over 16 million people and the country’s commercial centre. Despite opposition from major political parties, particularly the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Sindh cabinet has approved the appointment of Wahab as Karachi’s administrator.

Wahab has been the Sindh chief minister’s advisor on law and the environment as well as a spokesperson for the provincial government. He contested the last general election from PS 111, a constituency comprising Karachi’s posh areas of Clifton and the DHA, but lost to PTI’s Imran Ismail, who went on to become the governor of Sindh.

After the term of an elected mayor ends and in the absence of an elected KMC body, administrators, who are usually bureaucrats, look after the city affairs till a new mayor is elected. Top PPP leaders, however, have decided to appoint a political administrator ahead of the local government polls in the metropolis for which a schedule is yet to be announced.

“Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had picked Wahab for the job and tasked him with winning the upcoming local government election,” says a senior PPP leader. “The party is hoping that Wahab will play a key role in improving its standing in the city at the grassroots level. It performed poorly in the previous local government elections and in the general election.”

After the first spell of monsoon rains last week, Wahab visited several neighborhoods of the city to inspect the work and updated residents about the removal of water via Twitter. Political analysts believe that Karachi lacks a unified command structure that can provide the metropolis with a direction, meet its infrastructural and civic needs and resolve the problems that its residents face. The residents of the metropolis face many municipal problems linked to this current crisis of governance.

Political analysts say that Karachi’s civic issues have their roots in its complicated governance system. There have been many developments in the recent past; primarily, the weakening of the MQM-P on account of the crackdown and a split within the party. The crisis deepened after the 2018 general election.

During the term that ended 10 months ago the MQM-P had the mayor and chairpersons in four of Karachi’s six districts. In the 2018 general elections, however, the PTI won 14 out of the 21 seats in Karachi. The PPP, which won only 3 seats in Karachi, formed the government in the province after winning most of its seats in rural Sindh. The PTI and the MQM-P complain the PPP provincial government has made the local government system “toothless”.

Karachi lacks a unified command structure that can provide the metropolis with a direction, meet its infrastructural and civic needs and resolve the problems that its residents face

After the failure of city administration to manage the havoc created by monsoon rains in 2019, the PTI-led federal government had announced that a “strategic committee” will be formed, to look into the administrative, municipal and civic matters of Karachi in exercise of its “executive authority,” under Article 149 of the Constitution of Pakistan. The announcement resulted in a backlash from the PPP. Intervention from the highest level of the establishment did persuade the three principal stakeholders (the PPP, the PTI, and the MQM-P) to sit together and take some measures for the welfare of Karachi. When Wahab was selected to be Karachi administrator, Governor Imran Ismail, who represents the PTI’s federal government in the province, voiced his opposition to the provincial government’s move.

“In a meeting of the three major stakeholders, held at the Governor’s House, in the presence of the prime minister and military leadership, it was decided that the Karachi administrator would be an apolitical person, whose appointment would be made after a consultation between the Sindh government and the opposition parties,” Ismail told me. “A unilateral decision by the Sindh government in this regard will be inappropriate,” Ismail had remarked, saying that any such decision violate the earlier agreement on the matter.

MQM-P leader Khalid Maqbool Siddiqi said that Wahab’s appointment would only benefit the ruling party in the province. “The proposed appointment is meant to rig the local government polls in the province,” said Siddiqui. He demanded that the provincial government appoint a politically neutral person as the new administrator.

For his part, Wahab said that the provincial law did not bar the appointment of a politician as the city’s administrator. He said there was a precedent for it. “In the past, people like the late Mushahidullah Khan of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Fahim Zaman of the PPP have served as administrators of the city,” he said.

According to official KMC records, from 1972 to 2002, there were two elected mayors in Karachi, Abdul Sattar Afghani of the Jamaat-i-Islami (1979 to 1983) and Dr Farooq Sattar of the MQM (1987 to 1992). There were 17 administrators during that time; among them, two were political appointees, two were retired brigadier-level military officers and the rest bureaucrats.

After the introduction of the new local government system during Gen Pervez Musharaf’s regime, Naimatullah Khan of the JI and the Syed Mustafa Kamal of the MQM were elected nazims in 2001 and 2005, respectively. Since 2010, the PPP has been making laws to undo the Musharraf era legislation on city management. Under Musharraf’s rule, Karachi had 18 towns, but the PPP revived the six districts and made them the administrative units. To this end, the PPP introduced the Sindh Local Government Act of 2010, and has amended it at least 20 times so that it is now closer to the 1979 system as many of the powers vested in the city nazim have been transferred to the provincial government. Soon after the MQM-P won the local government polls in 2015, it complained that its mayor, Waseem Akhter, lacked powers needed for effective governance.

Most recently, on July 18, the Sindh cabinet approved the handing over of four hospitals to the provincial health department. After becoming Karachi’s administrator, Wahab has to face the great challenges of finding a way to resolve Karachi’s civic issues: a scarcity of drinking water, heaps of garbage, broken roads and choked sewage lines.

The writer is a The News staffer. He can be reached via email, at [email protected], and on Twitter   @zalmayzia

A controversial appointment