For the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), the 2018 elections will be the toughest in its entire history. The party — which faced multiple crackdowns and has a history of bloody rivalry with opponents and dissidents alike — dominated the ballot whenever it contested elections. The only time it did not represent the people of urban Sindh in the national and provincial legislatures was when it boycotted the 1993 general elections in the wake of an operation.
But since then, whenever the MQM took to the electoral field, it trounced its rivals, banking on a loyal support-base and an effective use of strong-arm tactics.
In the 2013 elections, the party bagged from Karachi, 17 National Assembly seats and 33 Sindh Assembly seats. In 2008, it won 17 national and 34 provincial seats, while in 2002 it secured 13 national and 29 provincial seats.
In 2018, however, it is unlikely to repeat its past electoral performance. The party, besieged by demons internally and externally, may garner fewer seats from its bastion of power. The reason behind the dwindling political fortunes of the MQM stems from both the subjective and objective challenges it faces in the run-up to July 25.
These are the first ever elections the MQM is contesting without the blessings of its Quaid, Altaf Hussain, who has already announced the boycott of the coming polls from London. Although the MQM has disassociated itself from Altaf Hussain, his influence over voters — at least a significant segment of them — cannot be ruled out. Even a small fraction of the traditional voters decide to stay away from the polls owing to Hussain’s boycott appeal, it will diminish the prospects of MQM-P candidates in many constituencies.
The second problem for the MQM is the emergence of the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) from within its ranks. This factor too, was missing in the last elections. The PSP is eyeing the same support-base. This means a further chipping-away of votes from the MQM’s vote bank, which can be damaging for the party in closely contested constituencies.
The third problem the MQM faces is infighting. The PIB and Bahadurabad factions may have joined hands, but the friction within these two groups has shaken the party from within. It will be a huge challenge for the MQM to galvanise its leadership and mobilise workers when the memories of confrontation still remain fresh.
These will be the first elections which the MQM will be contesting minus its nerve center of Azizabad. The famed Nine-Zero — residence of Altaf Hussain — and its headquarters remain out of bounds for the party. Offices in other neighbourhoods too have either been demolished or taken-over by the Rangers as part of the Karachi Operation, which began in 2013.
The Karachi Operation has dismantled and weakened the MQM’s muscle. Many of its workers are in jail, some are on the run, while others have joined the MQM-London and the PSP.
This means that the Rangers-led operation has changed the rules of the game in Karachi and the MQM may find its home turf unaccommodating on D-Day. It will face the challenge of mobilising and managing voters at the polling stations.
In the past, there have been widespread allegations that the MQM increased the margin of its victory and even went so far as to prevent its candidates from losing elections by resorting to high-handed tactics both inside and outside the polling stations. Consequently, these elections will serve as a test-case for the party’s performance in an environment that is less supportive.
The delimitation of constituencies has also emerged as another big challenge for the MQM, which it claims was done with the aim of dividing its vote bank and uniting its rivals. For the 2018 elections, the number of National Assembly seats in Karachi have been increased from 20 to 21.
Given these challenges, other parties — including the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), the PSP, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), are looking to expand their base in Karachi. PPP Chairman, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, is entering electoral politics from the party stronghold of Lyari, while PML-N President, Shehbaz Sharif and PTI Chairman, Imran Khan, are both contesting for a National Assembly seat from Karachi. MQM dissidents — Mustafa Kamal of the PSP and Afaq Ahmed of Mohajir Qaumi Movement — formerly known as MQM-Haqiqi — are also in the run.
This renewed interest in Karachi from the country’s national leadership is a good omen. It adds colour and diversity to the coming election.
The PPP, which has been ruling Sindh for the last decade, hopes to cash in on the MQM’s plight. It has pitched a mix of the old guard and new names in the heart of MQM-dominated areas, as well as those where it feels it stands a good chance. After a long time, the PML-N is also running a serious election campaign in Karachi in select constituencies, as is the PTI, which had, unexpectedly, performed well in the 2013 elections.
The MQM faces a seemingly impossible task of maintaining its past tally of national and provincial seats from Karachi, which it had been winning from the mid-1980s. It has to overcome, within weeks and days, both its subjective and objective problems if it intends to remain a major player. Many factors, however, are beyond the control of the party leadership, which is facing its first-ever general election minus Altaf Hussain.
Given its many constraints, the size of the MQM seats is expected to shrink come July 25. The MQM needs nothing short of a miracle. But the powers that can make such miracles happen stand on the other side of the divide. The 2018 elections appear all set to change the political landscape of Karachi, though it may not change the fortunes of its citizens.
Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.
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