What the recent by-election tells us about Karachi’s changing politics

MQM Victory Rally (Credit: tribune.com.pk)
MQM Victory Rally (Credit: tribune.com.pk)

It’s done it again. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s recent victory in Karachi’s NA-246 constituency, its seventh in a row, has dealt a blow to its critics, who claimed the party’s grip was loosening in a city yearning for political change.

Far from weakening the party, the Rangers’ raid on MQM’s headquarters on March 11 and subsequent events seem to have revitalized the link between the party and its constituents. The by-election on April 23 reaffirmed its capacity to bounce back in challenging times. Its core constituency (the Urdu-speaking middle- and lower-middle classes of Karachi’s District Central) sent packing the self-styled ‘liberators’ who promised voters “freedom from fear.” Opponents have had to face the fact that the “living dead,” as Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf described MQM voters, are alive and kicking.

On closer inspection, however, the ‘landslide’ victory of the MQM is not as blatant as it seems. And while this victory is certainly a shot in the arm for an embattled party, it provides only temporary respite.

Rarely has a by-election captured as much attention at the national level as the one in NA-246. On one hand, everyone was eager to see how the MQM was going to get out of the awkward corner where the military establishment, with the support of the federal government, had pushed it in the preceding weeks. The involvement of all the contenders’ central leadership only contributed to raise the stakes even further.

Once again, PTI chief Imran Khan and his entourage demonstrated their unfamiliarity with Karachi’s ground realities by convincing themselves that their rhetoric of salvation would be enough to ravish the MQM’s home constituency, where it has remained undefeated since 1988. By equating Mohajirs at large, in a constituency where they account for more than 80 percent of registered voters, with passive victims waiting to be liberated from the yoke of crime and authoritarianism, the PTI alienated potential voters and probably even drove a significant number of its past voters back toward the MQM.

Instead, the PTI should have realized that the MQM’s grip over Azizabad and other Urdu-speaking localities of NA-246 is less the outcome of its coercive tactics than of its patronage politics. The MQM has delivered, providing its constituents with public jobs, helping them overcome bureaucratic and legal hurdles, facilitating their access to water and electricity (however imperfect these services remain). Khan and the PTI also ignored the fact that the largely uncontested authority of the MQM over this part of the city has preserved a semblance of peace in the area. Every MQM voter may not sympathize with the party’s muscular style of politics, but most residents of these localities will admit that at least some order reigns in this part of town.

Kunwar Naveed Jamil, the MQM candidate, received 95,644 votes or a bit more than 73 percent of the total cast. This is similar to what Nabil Gabol, whose resignation from the National Assembly required this by-election, secured in the 2013 election as an MQM candidate. As such, Jamil’s score puts paid to allegations, including from Gabol, that the MQM owed its recent victories to wholesale rigging. Conducted under the close watch of the Rangers, no one can claim that the MQM’s comfortable win was the outcome of electoral malpractices. The party has demonstrated that it has retained a large vote-bank in its home constituency.

At the same time, despite its relatively poor showing, the PTI has seen its vote share (percentage of votes polled minus invalid ones) increase from 17 percent to 19 percent. This should already be a source of concern for the MQM. Clearly, the PTI has made a dent into the MQM’s vote bank and it seems here to stay. But this is not the only matter of concern. Electoral assessments in terms of vote share always present a strong bias as they fail to account for invalid votes and, more importantly, for the abstention rate. This bias is particularly blatant in the case of NA-246, a constituency known for its erratic level of participation since 1990.

After 1988, when the constituency registered a record rate of participation (53 percent), this rate declined to 28 percent in 1990 and further to 9 percent in 1993 (when the MQM boycotted the polls). During the following elections this rate increased steadily: 17 percent in 1997, 37 percent in 2002, and 63 percent in 2008. In 2013, however, the turnover fell to 52 percent, only to decline further during this by-election, where it fell to its 2002 level, at 37 percent. This corresponds to the average rate of participation registered since 1988 but the significant reduction of votes polled (131,418 in 2015 against 189,405 in 2013) raises several questions nonetheless. How much does this decline owe to delays in the voting process (which, according to the MQM, were instigated by law and order agencies), greater scrutiny over this particular election (which made electoral malpractices nearly impossible), and more simply to the electoral fatigue of local residents?

The fact remains that only 27 percent of registered voters of NA-246 gave their votes to the MQM, against 38 percent in 2013 and 60 percent in 2008. One might argue that large-scale rigging biased the results of the 2008 and 2013 elections. Indeed, a recent review of the constituency’s electoral history suggests that the MQM’s average bag in NA-246 (except for 1988) is around 19 percent. In this sense, the results of this by-election are indeed a significant success for the MQM, as they point toward an increase of its actual vote share. And yet, what has emerged from this election is a downsized political party which will have to come to terms with a harsh reality: even in its home constituency, where its political journey begun in the late 1980s, it can no longer claim to enjoy the unconditional support of the masses.

For all its claims that NA-246 ‘belonged’ to the party (a claim resonating with larger claims of ‘ownership’ over Karachi), the MQM leadership will have to cope with the fact that voters’ behavior can no longer be taken for granted, be it in the party’s strongholds or, a fortiori, in more contested constituencies. Gone are the days of the MQM’s uncontested authority over Karachi and, in this sense, this by-election could prove to be an important milestone in Karachi’s political history, confirming its transition toward a post-hegemonic political order—a configuration where the MQM, for now, remains the predominant political force but where it has to cope with unprecedented competition from electoral rivals and, thus, has to resort to more active campaigning to win the day.

So where do the MQM and Karachi politics go from here?

In the short term, Karachi’s predominant party has won a certain breathing space but is not yet over the hill. Those who had started questioning MQM chief Altaf Hussain’s authority within the party, however surreptitiously, have been silenced for now even as his succession remains an open question. As investigations into Imran Farooq’s murder and pending money-laundering cases follow their course, Hussain’s future in the U.K. remains uncertain. In any case, and however inconceivable this may still be for MQM workers and sympathizers, Hussain will not always be there to steer the party in the face of adversity. Sooner or later, it will have to generate a new leadership, a process which will be fraught with tensions and for which, considering the absence of a strong and consensual second-tier leadership within the party, the MQM seems largely unprepared. The transition of the party to a post-charismatic politics, what Max Weber called the “routinization of charisma,” will be its greatest challenge and this time there is no guarantee that the party will emerge victorious, or survive at all.

The reaction of the military establishment to this electoral victory also remains uncertain. Targeted operations against the party’s alleged “militant wing” will probably continue, while judicial pressure on party leaders and activists may increase in the coming months, both in Pakistan and in the U.K. This pressure will severely constrain the margin of maneuver of the party and might contribute to its normalization. But one cannot entirely exclude a return to its militant posturing and disruptive tactics, especially in the case of Hussain’s forced retirement.

The by-election results suggest that the PTI’s time has not yet come. But for all its shortcomings, the PTI has confirmed that it could become a serious challenger to the MQM’s supremacy, provided it draws lessons from its relatively poor showing on April 23. If the PTI is to consolidate its position in Karachi politics, it will have to consider joining forces with the Jamaat-e-Islami to avoid excessive scattering of votes expressing a desire for political change. At the same time, however, such an alliance might compromise the growing support for the PTI among the Shia. At a more structural level, the PTI will have to strengthen its local apparatus in order to embed itself firmly in the everyday life of Karachi’s low-income residents, who hold the key to electoral success. For this, the PTI leadership will have to relinquish its histrionics and start addressing the more pressing concerns of local voters, while engaging more serenely with its main rival, which, during this by-election, proved unequivocally that it is not ‘occupying’ Karachi by force.

The uncertainties surrounding the current reconfiguration of Karachi’s political landscape also have to do with the future of ethnic and sectarian politics in the city. This by-election signaled a return of the MQM to its earlier ethnic posturing, which compromised its attempts to expand its constituency beyond Mohajirs. Not that this really matters electorally. For all its attempts to tone down its ethnic rhetoric and field non-Mohajir candidates in recent elections, the MQM has always failed to draw a significant number of voters from non-Mohajir backgrounds. The MQM’s capacity to retain the support of Shia voters, both among Ismaili and Twelver Shia communities, will likely be more significant for its future. In NA-246, the Shia vote seems to have scattered and, following the alliance of the Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen with the PTI, a large number of Shia voters appear to have opted for the latter.

The capacity of the PTI to woo Shia voters is proof of its capacity to overcome the ethnic and sectarian fault lines that have come to characterize Karachi politics and social life. Here lies the major challenge to the MQM’s predominant position: in the PTI’s potential to emerge as a truly pan-ethnic and/or pan-Islamic party. While this potential remains largely unrealized, the PTI has an obvious advantage over its rival: it is less bounded to a specific linguistic group. In a city whose demography is fast changing and where Mohajirs are no longer the majority, this could prove to be a major strategic advantage, provided the emerging challenger starts to understand this city in all its complexity, rather than through the simplistic dyad of occupation and liberation.

Gayer is a research fellow at the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales, Paris, and author of Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (Hurst, 2014), available in Pakistan through HarperCollins India.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *