The recent by election in Karachi’s NA-240 offers an insight into the current and future trends of Karachi’s complicated electoral politics
n the violence-plagued by-polls in Karachi’s NA-240 constituency held on June 16, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was on the cusp of victory and about to send the first of its members to the country’s National Assembly. However, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement – Pakistan (MQM-P) once again emerged victorious from the constituency in the by-elections by a razor-thin majority – with a mere 65 votes – against the TLP.
Analysts believe that the results of the NA-240 by-polls provide an insight into the trends of Karachi’s complicated electoral politics, particularly the upcoming local government polls. The first phase of local government elections was held on June 26 in 14 Sindh districts. In the second phase, elections will be held in Karachi and Hyderabad divisions on July 24.
The NA-240 by-polls results showed a dominating presence of TLP in Karachi’s lower and middle-class Urdu-speaking populated neighbourhoods. “The TLP has an ideological support base in most of the city. It can also use violence against its rivals,” said an MQM-P leader in Karachi’s Landhi area, an area that falls in the NA-240 constituency. “It would have been a concerning development not only for the MQM-P, but also for the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, and other political stakeholders of the city,” adds the leader. “But it does not seem that the city’s political leadership is strong enough to challenge it in the upcoming local government polls.”
The TLP is among several religious sect groups, functioning on the blurred line between non-violent religious extremism and violent militancy, that want their share of the pie in the upcoming local government elections, particularly in urban centres like Karachi.
Some of them are standing as party candidates; others have tickets from some less-known political fronts. In some cases, alliances have been formed with major political parties and independent groups.
The TLP was formed in 2016 following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a policeman who killed the then Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, in 2011, over his opposition to blasphemy laws.
After pulling big crowds, and organising violent street protests on the issue of Khatm-i-Nabuwwat (the finality of Prophethood) and blasphemy laws, the TLP took part in the 2018 general elections. It emerged as Pakistan’s fifth most popular party, finishing third in terms of votes polled for the Punjab Assembly, surpassing the Pakistan Peoples Party, and winning two provincial assembly seats from Karachi.
In April 2021, the federal government formally banned the TLP amid violent rallies over the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in France. However, in November, the government lifted the ban on the group “in the larger national interest” and in line with a “secret agreement” it had signed with the group on October 31, following violent protests by the TLP to press for the release of its chief, Saad Rizvi.
The NA-240 by-polls results showed a dominating presence of the TLP in Karachi’s low income and middle-class Urdu-speaking neighbourhoods.
The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a sectarian group that was banned in 2012 over suspected links with terror outfits, quietly contested the local government elections in 2015 in Karachi under the banner of the Pakistan Rah-i-Haq Party (PRHP) and won nine seats at various levels. This time, its chief Maulana Aurangzeb Farooqi has announced plans to field candidates for local government polls in Karachi under the ASWJ banner. “If the TLP can be unbanned, why can we not use the ASWJ platform?” said a group leader, who is contesting local government polls from a union committee from Malir.
Farooqi also contested NA-238, a National Assembly constituency in Karachi, and was placed second, bagging more than 19,000 votes despite his name being on the Fourth Schedule, a list of individuals suspected of terrorism and/ or extremist sectarianism under Section 11EE of the ATA 1997.
Earlier, operating as Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and Millat-i-Islamia Pakistan before both were banned, the party had emerged as a key Deobandi group, attracting aggressive youth from the country’s urban centres, including Karachi.
Announcing its plan to take part in the upcoming local government polls in Karachi, the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek has also fielded its candidates in various areas. In August 2017, the banned Jamaatud Dawa had announced its entry into the political mainstream with the launch of Milli Muslim League, declaring Saifullah Khalid as the new party’s first president.
However, two months later, the Election Commission of Pakistan rejected an application for registration filed by the MML, following the interior ministry‘s response filed with the ECP recommending the party be banned. Later, the group announced that it will continue its electoral activities from the platform of the AAT, which is registered with the ECP and whose leaders are Muhammad Aslam Rabbani and Adnan Khadim.
Majlis-i-Wahdat-i-Muslimeen (MWM), a major Shia political group, is also contesting the local government polls in the areas of the city where the community is in a majority.
Compared to general elections, it is easier for religious groups, smaller but violent, to gain success in local government polls because the constituencies are smaller, political analysts say. “By taking part in the local government polls in major urban centres, such as Karachi, these groups want to make their presence felt,” says Munir Ahmed Shah, a Karachi-based political observer, studying religious groups extensively.
A law enforcement official, engaged in the crackdown on sectarian militant outfits, says that participation of groups engaged in militancy and intolerance can hijack and radicalise electoral processes through the exploitation of sensitive issues like blasphemy and sectarianism. “There should be some mechanism to stop such groups from taking part in the elections,” the official tells The News on Sunday.
As for the ECP, it only deals with parties registered with it. Banning a party for violence is the Interior Ministry’s job.
The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at email@example.com. He tweets at @zalmayz