August Issue 2018

By | Newsbeat National | Published 3 months ago

The National Assembly constituency of District West, Baldia Town Sub-Division, NA-249, has emerged as one of the most diverse constituencies in Karachi in the new delimitations, as it comprises localities from almost all the ethnic groups — around 25 per cent each of Mohajirs, Pashtuns, and Punjabis, while the remaining quarter consists of Sindhis, Baloch, Hindko-speaking Hazaray Wal, and scattered Seraiki pockets across the constituency. 

NA-249 has been carved out by bringing together almost all of Baldia Town, which was split between two constituencies — NA-239 and NA-240 — in the previous delimitations. Some parts of SITE Town, located on the peripheries of the industrial area, e.g. Zia Colony and Mominabad, have also been included in NA-249. These localities, were part of the NA-241 constituency in the old delimitation. However, NA-249 excludes a few goths of the Baloch and Katchi communities, which have now been appended to the NA-248 constituency.

In previous local bodies elections, Baldia Town was won by the Awami National Party (ANP in 2001), and by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM in 2005). In the 2015 local bodies elections, half of the 10 union committees from the constituency were won by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), followed by the MQM, which won in four union committees. Perhaps, this was the reason PML-N President and Punjab Chief Minister (CM), Mian Shehbaz Sharif, chose to contest the general elections from NA-249. Eyeing the diverse ethnic composition, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) also  entered the electoral race, and fielded Faisal Vawda against the former Punjab CM. Qadir Khan Mandokhail from the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), Syed Attaullah Shah of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), Dr Fouzia Hameed of the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), Mufti Abid Mubarak from Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), and Aslam Shah of the MQM-P were the other candidates contesting from this area.

Former Town Nazim, Baldia Town, Aurangzeb Khan Buneri of the ANP, had also filed nomination papers for this seat, but his papers were rejected. The party thus opted for seat adjustment with the PML-N. The MQM, owing to its internal split, the election boycott call by Altaf Hussain, and the emergence of the Barelvi radical group, the TLP, stood little chance, and the contest was mainly between the PML-N and the PTI. In a bid to woo the voters here, Vawda had shifted from his DHA residence to the locality he was contesting from for more effective campaigning, and used his own money and influence to get the garbage in the area cleaned, a few of the government-owned dispensaries restored, and a couple of primary schools furnished. He attracted media attention when he was quoted saying that he didn’t need an official position, but had the will to get work done for the benefit of the people.

In the provincial assembly constituencies, PS-115 and PS-116, the PTI had picked two local candidates, Engineer Abdul Rehman and Malik Shahzad Awan, to woo the Pashtun, Punjabi, and Hazaray Wal voters. The PML-N fielded Saleheen Tanoli and Khwaja Ghulam Shoaib as the candidates for these Sindh Assembly constituencies. Some of the PML-N local officials were not happy with the party ticket having been awarded to Ghulam Shoaib, an outsider and a relative of PML-N stalwart, Khwaja Saad Rafique, but for others it was understandable, as it was the candidates on provincial assembly seats who had to bear the expenses of the electoral campaign for the party central president.

NA-249, PS-115 and PS-116 were unique in the diversity of their constituencies, and the choice of candidates from the mainstream political parties contesting from these constituencies made them a prime choice for journalists and election observers through which to discern the prevailing trends and changing political environment in the city. 

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also picked these constituencies, along with four others in Karachi, 20 in Sindh, and 67 across the country, for their monitoring teams to carry out observations on polling day.

Having been selected as an HRCP observer in NA-249, I began my watch from Afridi Colony, where the polling station was set up in a government school building near the local graveyard.

At Hazara Chowk, at a distance of 100 yards from the polling station, assorted political parties had put up their respective camps to facilitate the voters. From the very outset, it was obvious that workers at the PPP, MQM-P, MMA and PTI camps, were facing a hard time helping locate the name of each person who approached them, their serial number and census block code in the electoral rolls.

Actually, these facts could have been checked by the voters themselves through the short messaging service (SMS) set up by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in collaboration with the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA). All that was needed was for voters to send their CNIC numbers  to 8300 and get these details through an automated response. But despite massive advertising of the service, the majority of the people ignored the message, only realising its significance on polling day itself when the SMS service stopped responding due to an overload.

In many cases, the candidates had personally also provided this information at the doorstep of the voters in the week before the elections. But in the constituencies where most of the population lives in rented premises and their addresses keep changing, these details couldn’t be delivered to their homes. The alternative would have been for voters to approach the candidates’ offices with their CNICs to get these details. But as seems to now be the norm in Pakistan, most people keep this task for polling day.

Hence, a measure of disorganisation. Complaining about the dysfunctional SMS service, MMA and PPP workers were seen pointing voters in the direction of the PTI camp. Maulana Abdul Bari, a worker of the MMA explained, “The PTI camp has some alternative arrangements for the electoral rolls issue, as they have specialised android devices, so we have sent our voters to the PTI camps to get the required information.”

Rizwan, the man in charge of the PTI polling camp, said, “Our party has developed their own application based on the ECP and NADRA data by spending millions, so we don’t have to rely on the poorly performing ECP service. We are helping everyone who approaches us, even if we know he is not our voter.” 

In the polling schemes of NA-249, four schools, which were shown as different polling stations having serial numbers 82, 83, 84 and 98, were located inside the same boundary wall with a single entry point: the main gate. These schools had 12 polling booths (seven for men and five for women) established for 6,168 (3,874 men and 2,294 women) voters, who had to go through the single main gate after checking by men or women police officials.

When I approached the policeman at the gate, he said, “Mobile phones are not allowed sir, you have to hand yours over to someone and only then will you be allowed to enter.” He added, “Even the deputy commissioner was not allowed to take his phone inside.”

The strict security checking and the exercise of collecting mobile phones slowed down the voting process considerably. It was 8.30 am when I finally entered the polling station, but the polling process had not started. It took another 15 minutes for the polling to begin in the first booth. The polling staff was busy in pasting the hand-written lists containing block codes and voter serial numbers on all the 12 polling booths, which took them another half-hour.

Commenting on the delay, Rizwan, a PTI worker said, “I approached the polling staff last night and offered my help vis-a-vis making all the necessary arrangements so that polling could start on time, but they asked me to come in the morning. When I visited them in the morning, they still had to make the lists and paste them on the polling booths. It took them an hour, hence further delaying the polling process.”

 Men were standing in line at different polling booths; some of them complained that these multiple polling stations inside the same boundary caused a lot of confusion, as they spent half-an-hour in the queue outside one polling booth before discovering that their number was not listed.

Arif Hussain, a PPP worker said, “These multiple polling stations clustered together within the same boundary have created a mess, as four booths  are all assigned the same number, i.e. each polling station has polling booth number 1.  So there are four polling booths numbering ‘1’ in a complex. It’s enough to confuse anyone. Often, voters approach us for their respective polling booths as per their block codes and serial numbers, only to find out they are standing in the wrong queue, wasting their time. The situation is worse for women, as most of them are illiterate. When they are told that their vote is not at this polling booth and they have to approach another one, some of them leave without casting their vote, complaining that they were turned away by the polling staff.”

My next stop as an observer was the Government Boys Primary School Azimabad, which is located between Swat colony and Dabba Colony, and is surrounded by the locality of the Niazi clan. The school was assigned serial numbers 106 and 107 in the polling schemes and five polling booths (four for men and one for women) were set up, and 2,930 voters (2,355 men and 575 women) had registered to cast their votes here. These booths also had a single entry point, a small gate, barely five feet wide. Everyone had to go through the security check.

Bilal Hussain, a teenage ANP worker sitting at the polling camp, had the same list of complaints as the workers in other camps — among these a delay of almost an hour in the start of polling and a very slow polling process. 

Alam Shah, the worker in charge of the MMA camp, maintained, “The whole process is very transparent; there is no intimidation and manipulation inside the polling stations, unlike previous elections, but the security checks and the working style of the polling staff has slowed down the process. If a member of the polling staff leaves his seat for any reason, the polling is further delayed for 10-15 minutes.”

A PML-N worker revealed that two of the ballot boxes were not sealed, hence they raised objections and these boxes were replaced, but this resulted in a delay of one-and-a half hours at those two polling booths.

The PTI camp near Firdous Masjid was surrounded by young enthusiasts who were complaining about the discrepancies in the electoral rolls. One worker complained that votes of the women in his family were not at the same place despite having the same address and family tree number; “three are at Crescent School and the other two are at a distant place,” he contended. Another young worker complained that his vote was placed at a school in Liaquatabad. Complaints of irregularities in the electoral rolls were raised by almost all the political parties, but these couldn’t be addressed on polling day.

While talking about the slow polling process, Imran, a local PTI official, cited another reason, saying that the material was not adequate in all the booths and referred to the stingy allocation of stamp pads. “You (the voter) need the stamp pad four times; twice for thumb impressions in order to get the ballot papers (green for the NA and white for the PA vote) and twice more for stamping on these ballots, but you have to take the same stamp pad to the booth, which slows down the process.” In addition, the electoral staff has to stamp both ballot papers on the back before handing them to the voters. So that makes for a total of six stamps per voter. Why the ECP economised on stamp pads is a question that should be raised. It may also be the reason why so many ballot papers were rejected since many voters were trying to make sure the stamp could be seen on their vote and stamped more than once on their choice of symbol. Apparently that was one reason for rejecting the ballot.

 

While I was busy talking to the PTI workers, their candidate from PS-115, Engineer Abdul Rehman, arrived. He approached me and we were introduced to each other. He asked, “Are you in a position to influence the authorities to address the complaints of these people?” “No, I am just an observer,” I replied. However, I will note down the complaints and make them part of my report, so the process can be improved upon next time.” To this he said, “So you will only file a report?” and moved on. 

From Dabba Colony, I headed towards Chandni Chowk, so I could go through Guldad Shah Road that has Firdous Mohallah and Madina Colony on one side and Shamozi Mohallah on the other side. In the past, these localities have been the stronghold of the ANP and the JUI-F respectively, and the residence of former town nazim, Baldia Town, the ANP’s Aurangzeb Khan Buneri (2001-2005) and the MMA PS-115 candidate and former MPA, Hafiz Muhammad Naeem (2002-2007). 

The scene at Guldad Shah Road was astounding. Unlike the past when mostly ANP flags were hoisted in the the area, now it was flooded with PTI flags and banners and barely a few flags of the ANP and the MMA could be seen. The dera of Yousuf Advocate, adjacent to the Jamia Masjid Firdaus, had PTI panaflex banners, and Yousuf Advocate was personally overseeing the transportation facilities for women voters.  I asked Yousuf Advocate about the change in political affiliation in this dera and he revealed that the PTI PS-115 candidate, Engineer Abdul Rehman, is his son, so he had to back him and his party affiliation.

The polling station on Guldad Shah Road, Baldia Boys Primary School, also had its share of issues to contend with. There were three polling stations in the same building, with serial numbers 99, 100, 101, and eight polling booths (four each for men and women, numbering 4,554 voters — 2,646 men and 1,908 women).

 Rehman Ali, the PPP worker in charge of the polling camp, told me, “The polling staff here, comprising mainly government school teachers, is aged and taking too much time while performing the required tasks.” Shahzad, a PTI worker, added that there were an estimated 10 per cent discrepancies in the voters lists, as the votes of some locals had been shifted to other constituencies. “In one polling booth, only 231 votes have been polled in the last seven hours. Every voter takes five to eight minutes (to process) while the process actually requires only two to three minutes.”

 From Guldad Shah Road I went towards Anjam Colony, a stronghold of the MQM that went through rough times during the political violence of the ’90s. It is the same locality where Rangers officer, Captain Aamir, was killed along with some policemen, and names like Farooq Patni alias Farooq Dada, Ghaffar Madaa, Yaqoob Madaa, Siddique Buchia and Shahid Chand emerged in those years. Notorious police officer and ‘staged encounter specialist,’ Rao Anwar, earned his name by killing Farooq Dada in one such encounter. 

At the Chowk, there is a huge MQM flag (now MQM-P) with the kite sign and the marble stone has Farooq Dada Chowk written over it. These localities were previously part of the NA-240 (old delimitation). The MQM had always won from here in general and local bodies’ elections, and their benefit could be seen in the better quality of roads and other amenities in the area, such as schools, dispensaries and parks. But now the effects of the MQM internal crisis are quite visible.

Three political parties — the MQM-P, the PPP and the TLP — had set up their polling camps here. There was no one apart from the workers at the PPP camp, while the MQM camp had party enthusiasts who were complaining about the humiliating attitude of the members of the law-enforcement agencies (LEAs) at the polling stations, the “deliberate” delay in the polling process, and the names of voters who had, unbeknownst to them, been shifted to other constituencies. 

The TLP camp was, surprisingly, the most crowded one. One of the workers, a bank employee, introduced himself and started by lauding the LEAs, especially the army and the rangers and security agencies, for restoring peace in the city and ridding it of the environment of fear and hatred. “It’s the first time in the last few elections when we are voting freely without any fear,” he said. Another person interrupted him and said, “In the previous elections, we would be sleeping in our homes, and our vote would be cast. Now I want to cast my vote, but my vote has been shifted to New Karachi while I am living in Kumharwara. This is unjust to us.”

There are many reasons for these discrepancies, especially of the votes being shifted to other localities, but one of the primary reasons in this election, as I have observed in the previous election as well, was the MQM’s bid to shift their votes from areas where they enjoyed a majority, to those constituencies where they knew they would face tough contests. 

In this election, however,  this policy proved a disadvantage as no party was in a position to manipulate the polling process. All the complaints regarding manipulation of the results are in the counting process.

Being a stronghold of the MQM, there was, however, an advantage. The polling schemes for these localities were different from the other localities I visited. Polling stations were not clustered together in a single building; two or three polling stations were not assigned to a single school, nor did these single polling stations have more than 1500 votes. It was in sharp contrast with most of the schools in mixed ethnic areas. The MQM-P did not set up polling camps outside all the polling stations, as they still have the most organised electoral machinery and the majority of the voters were provided details of their votes and respective polling stations well in advance. This notwithstanding, there was little evidence of any enthusiasm for voting. There were no long queues outside the small buildings of schools, dispensaries or community centres where polling stations were established, although it was already 5.00 pm and only an hour was left for polling.

Nothing worked in favour of the MQM-P, as the delimitation had caused the damage.They hardly had 25 per cent of the localities with their support placed in NA-249. In the ballot, the major blow came from the new party, the TLP, which won the PS-115 constituency and dented the MQM-P vote bank across Karachi.

At the end of the exercise, when I was moving towards the main road through Delhi food street in Delhi Colony, a man wearing a baseball cap, sitting on a bike with his three children stopped me and asked if I was an official. I told him I was a journalist. He then apologised for asking me to stop but not before asking whether I would be writing about all that I had observed. Then he whispered, “I am an Altafist. I haven’t voted for any party, since we have boycotted the election,  but you must have noticed that very few people were interested in the polls here.

“Look at the bazaar, it’s open;  look at the people, there is no enthusiasm.” I replied, “It’s the end of the day, most of the people must have voted.” He just laughed and said, “Ask my daughter,” and raised a slogan. “Jiye Altaf,” his daughter responded. “How can they eliminate him?” he continued. “The present MQM-P lot has betrayed him (Altaf Hussain), we won’t forgive them,” and moved away on his bike.

However, the overall impression in the locality shows that the lack of enthusiasm has little to do with Altaf Hussain’s boycott call; it is more a disillusionment with the politics of the MQM-P and their performance at the local bodies level. Many people pointed at the garbage heaps and commented, “We haven’t seen such a mess in past years, even when the party was not in power.”

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order