September issue 2002
Return of the Prodigal
Going by all the present indications, Pakistan’s political scenario is likely to remain unchanged after the October elections. The PPP and PML(N) will remain the parties with a mass following on the national front, while the MQM is all set to retain the vote bank it enjoys in Sindh. The religious parties may acquire a few more seats because of prevailing anti-US sentiments but they are unlikely to make any real dent in the support of the popular parties.
The outcome of the elections will also depend on the degree to which the government stands behind its claim of holding “fair and impartial elections,” a claim that has already begun to fall apart as clear signs of partiality are in the air.
Benazir’s exit was expected and very much on the cards. The acceptance of Nawaz Sharif’s nomination papers and his tactical withdrawal have also been seen as part of an understanding reached with the government.
The government’s firm resolve to keep Benazir out of the fray has sapped the morale of the PPP workers and party candidates fear that a low turnout could affect their chances on some tough seats.
The MQM candidates, however, are confident of success as their voters will go for the familiar kite — adopted once again as the party’s election symbol — and not for individuals, which speaks for the party’s organisational capabilities.
When the MQM’s self-exiled chief Altaf Hussain nominated Dr. Imran Farooq, the party’s strong man who has not been in the good books of the establishment for the convener’s post — the party’s top slot — he gave a clear message to the establishment that he would not be playing the game on their terms.
Between them, Altaf Hussain and Imran Farooq have over 200 cases against them, prominent among them the kidnapping case of Major Kaleem. That case is still pending in appeal from the government side in the Supreme Court, after the MQM won an appeal in the Sindh High Court.
A lasting bone of contention between the government and the MQM is the issue of ‘no-go’ areas in Karachi — areas dominated by their opponents, the Haqiqi faction. Muttahida leaders, in meetings with President Musharraf and officials of different government agencies, have demanded an end to these areas.
“We have always registered our grievances at the existence of these “no-go areas. If this is not done, it will refute the government’s claim of holding free and impartial elections,” said MQM leader Dr. Farooq Sattar. “The existence of militants in these areas proves his (Musharraf’s) unwillingness or inability to transform his policy into action.”
This time around, the MQM has introduced some new faces up front while a number of party stalwarts have been given the task of organising the party behind the scenes.
Like other parties, the MQM too conducted inter-party elections to qualify for the October elections and elected its convener, deputy convener and central coordination committee. For the first time since the formation of the party in 1986, non Urdu-speaking persons were also elected. Sindhi intellectual Ali Ahmed Brohi was among them, a move ostensibly directed to healing the rift between ethnic Sindhis and Muhajirs. However, certain political circles believe that bringing ethnic Sindhis into the fold could be an attempt to break the strong vote bank of the Pakistan Peoples Party, in the interior of Sindh.
In any case, the MQM faces no major problems in the upcoming elections and is all set to win the majority of seats in urban Sindh. With the increase in NA seats from 13 to 20 in Karachi and a similar increase in other parts of the province, the dominant urban force is set to emerge as the most powerful group, which will force the establishment to negotiate with Altaf Hussain.
However, the probability of an MQM-establishment rapprochement has received a setback with the election of Imran Farooq as the party’s convener. Remaining underground from 1992 to 1998, Farooq is considered a master organiser within the party, but his critics believe he is the leader of the hardline faction as well.
His surfacing in London in 1998, after a long disappearance during which all kinds of stories had been published in the press is still a big mystery. No one knows except Imran Farooq himself where he was during this time or how he managed to leave the country with a reward of five million rupees announced by the government for his arrest.
In spite of his chequered record, Imran Farooq was been given preference over Aftab Sheikh, Dr Farooq Sattar and Nasreen Jalil, the three deputy conveners of the party as well as senior members like Ajmal Dehalvi and Sheikh Liaquat Hussain.
“His selection was justified because of his organisational capabilities but at the same time it can create problems for government circles, who will have to deal with the backlash, but will not be able to form an anti-PPP government in the province without the MQM,” said a political analyst.
Muttahida still holds the key to the emerging political scenario and this time there is every possibility that they will go for the top slot in the Sindh government, if those who matter decide to go all out to form an anti-PPP government in the post-election scenario. Sources said the MQM had informed the relevant quarters of this intent as well as possible allies like the PML(Q), National Alliance and Sindh Democratic Alliance during the initial talks they held with them. President Musharraf had also stated that the MQM had a right to stake a claim to the post if its candidate managed to win a majority of seats in the assembly.
In the past, people like Jam Sadiq Ali, Syed Muzaffar Hussain Shah and Liaquat Jatoi became chief ministers of the province because of the MQM’s support. But this time around the MQM would prefer to go directly for the chief minister’s post and in return accept the incumbent Mohammadmian Soomro as governor of the province.
A strong lobby in the establishment has reservations over allowing the MQM to clinch the top post for different reasons. Firstly, they fear that it may lead not only to the persecution of the MQM’s rival faction, but also of the police officials and intelligence agency men, who were responsible for the extra-judicial killings of hundreds of MQM activists in the 1992 operation. Secondly, there are thousands of cases pending against MQM leaders and activists, which may go by the board.
However, there are those in government circles who strongly believe that the MQM is the only party which can pose an effective challenge to the PPP, particularly in Sindh province. They were of the view that there were also scores of anti-state cases against PPP leaders, including that of hijacking and murder, many of which were withdrawn. They said the MQM claimed that most of the cases against them were based on political differences with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.
The MQM, on its part, seems to be holding firm to the stand that it will not support any ‘puppet’ as chief minister in Sindh. “Many Sindhi chief ministers had failed to support the cause of Sindh in the past. Even hardliners like Mumtaz Ali Bhutto had been accused of compromising the province’s interest in the NFC award. Jam Sadiq turned out to be even worse. So what is wrong in trying out an MQM man. Maybe he will turn out to be a better choice,” said a political observer.
The MQM has already thrown in its weight behind major demands of the Sindhi nationalists, including their opposition to the Kalabagh Dam, Thal Canal, reservations on the NFC award and complete provincial autonomy in a bid to win acceptability in a wider arena.
Political observers, however, believe that it will not be an easy task for the MQM to nominate its own chief minister in the charged political atmosphere, where the PPP will still have a commanding presence, despite the absence of Benazir Bhutto. Voters in the interior of Sindh may be demoralised after Bhutto’s disqualification, but the decision has also created an element of hatred against the Punjabi-dominated establishment hat the party could exploit.
The MQM has so far not entered into an electoral alliance with any party, although all parties with the sole exception of the PPP have approached “nine-zero” at Azizabad to make a bid for Altaf’s support. In urban Sindh this is a sure road to victory and in some parts of interior of Sindh, decisive.
One has to wait and see how the MQM plays its cards in the given circumstances, but the chances are that General Pervez Musharraf may be constrained to back an MQM chief minister for the province.