There is a whiff of change in the air. Opponents of the Pakistani government Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) expect a quick ousting of Prime Minister Khan. The regime has been plagued by incompetence and a deteriorating economy. The smell sparked sudden activity among Karachi’s major political parties, who started coming out in numbers to be seen. Also on the horizon are the elections of local bodies.

Karachi, the capital of Sindh, the country’s largest metropolis and economic hub, is also Pakistan’s most ethnically diverse city. Urdu-speaking Mohajirs have been the majority community here since the 1950s, but their percentage is declining. Constituting 54.34% of the city’s population in 1981, the proportion fell to 42.30% in 2017. Pakhtuns are the fastest growing ethnic group in Karachi – growing more here than in the province at Pakhtun majority of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

The Punjabis are the third largest community, closely followed by the Sindhis. Other communities include Saraiki, Baloch, Hindko, Kashmiri, Gujarati, Hazara, Gilgiti, Bengali, Burmese and others. It is often said that if someone walks even a kilometer on a road in Karachi, he will be able to hear several languages.

Karachi is a port city. Port cities have a dynamic, impersonal and diverse social environment. But diversity can also produce complex political scenarios. Recently, predicting election results in Karachi has become a complicated business.

Voting trends in this gigantic city are changing. Between 1988 and 2013, the city was easier to predict. It continued to return a large number of candidates from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), while the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was the city’s second largest electoral group.

As local government polls edge closer, once again Karachi looks to have as much to gain as it did in 2018

In the 2013 elections, the PTI overtook the PPP to become Karachi’s second largest party. Then, in the 2018 elections, the PTI became the largest party in the city, replacing the MQM – although the results were questioned. The upcoming general elections in the city are expected to produce mixed results.

Until 1988, the city was infamous for producing scattered results. In the 1970 elections, Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP), Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and PPP won 2 seats each. The 1977 elections produced similar results, even though JI and JUP were part of an anti-PPP alliance.

In the 1980s, the city became an epicenter of ethnic violence. Its infrastructure began to deteriorate due to the Gen Zia dictatorship’s neglect of Karachi. The Mohajir and Pakhtun communities went to war because of the dwindling economic resources of the city. From the violence emerged the MQM and swept the 1988 elections.

With a combination of Mohajir nationalism, development work and activism, the MQM continued to win the most seats until 2013. This despite facing two major security operations against its “militants” in the 1990s.

Hundreds of people died, but the operations could not neutralize the electoral domination of the MQM. But from 2008, the party began its slow decline. The Awami National Party (ANP) has become popular among the city’s Pakhtuns, and the PPP has retained electoral dominance in the Sindhi and Baloch enclaves of Karachi.

In 2009, a new (although non-electoral) actor entered the fray in the form of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). An Islamist militant group, it began ruthlessly eliminating cadres of the ANP, MQM and PPP for ideological reasons, during the city’s infamous turf wars.

After the 2008 elections, the PPP, MQM and ANP formed a coalition government in the center and in Sindh. But due to infighting, mismanagement and attacks by the TTP, the ANP was nearly wiped out in Karachi, the MQM seemed at sea, and the PPP struggled to retain its strongholds.

Thus, the PTI managed to make a deep inroad here in the 2013 elections. It usurped the bulk of Karachi’s Pakhtun and Punjabi votes and also managed to attract a substantial amount of Mohajir votes.

In 2015, the MQM split into several factions. This has truly opened up Karachi’s many constituencies. In the contentious 2018 elections, JI tried to revive his former vote bank Mohajir, but it was eliminated by the PTI and the radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP).

In these elections, the PTI again received a large portion of Karachi’s Pakhtun and Punjabi votes. Moreover, the MQM votes of the upper middle class and the middle class were also swallowed up by the PTI, while the vital votes of the lower middle class of the MQM were mostly cast in favor of the TLP.

Karachi again looks as open as it was in 2018, if not more. The last by-election here (for NA-249) held in March 2021, is an example of this. NA-249 is one of the largest constituencies in the city, multi-ethnic, but with a large Pakhtun and Punjabi population.

NA-249 was won by the PTI in 2018 but, in 2021, it was won by the PPP, a party that has ruled Sindh since 2008. It is now clearly investing a lot more effort in attracting voters to Karachi as well – especially those who are clearly disappointed by PTI’s complete lack of performance in the city.

On the other hand, JI is also looking to revive his historic vote bank among the Mohajirs. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is also gaining ground (among non-Mohajir communities). Currently, Karachi may have one of the highest numbers of undecided voters in the country. PPP, JI and PML-N will all be in pursuit, along with former PTI supporters.

Read more: Protracted Karachi sit-in brings Jamaat-i-Islami into mainstream after years

I don’t see how PTI will be able to stop its waning appeal in the city. Moreover, his poor performance also rubbed off on his allies. MQM-P is one of them. He suffered greatly from the by-elections. It will be difficult for MQM to revive. He will fight for crumbs.

Things may improve for the party in local body elections, if its various factions can somehow come together. But what are they going to offer voters? Now more than ever, the electorate in Karachi is demanding jobs, roads, water and electricity connections and sewage lines. The MQM has done very little in this regard, even when it sits on the Treasury benches in Islamabad. The worn slogan of “Karachi Province” will not work.

What about TLP? He has no program, apart from fantasies of a cosmic war, he asks his followers to fight here and now for a place in paradise in the afterlife. The party may be a spoiler in some constituencies, but that’s about it.

Posted in Dawn, EOS, January 30, 2022

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