By Zia Ur Rehman

July 29, 2018

A few days before the general elections, Altaf Hussain, a self-exiled politician who used to control the port city of Pakistan from his office in London from 1992 until recently, appealed through a video message to the members of the city’s Muhajir population — families who had migrated from India in 1947 — to boycott the polls.

Hussain is the founder of the Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a political party that has won every election from the city in the last three decades through a mix of genuine support from the Muhajir community, neighbourhood-level party-cadre structure, and through the deployment of violence and fear.

But in the 2018 election, not only did the city’s Muhajirs not heed the exiled leader’s call, they handed over the city to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its leader Imran Khan, a politician whom the MQM had once warned against setting foot in Karachi.

By this time in every previous election, Nine Zero, the famed and long-feared headquarters of the MQM in Karachi’s Azizabad — named after the last two digits of the party office telephone number — would be abuzz with celebrating party cadres and victorious elected representatives. This time, there is no Nine Zero.

A 2013 Pakistan Rangers-led crackdown against violent groups, including Taliban militants, criminal syndicates and armed cadres of political parties has all but finished the MQM. The party underwent an internal power shift in the face of the fierce onslaught. But it was Hussain’s August 22, 2016, telephonic speech — his usual mode of communication at press conferences and, at one time, even election rallies – that sealed the fate of the party. His statements incited violence on the streets. MQM workers attacked two television channels. One person was killed and many were injured.

The Rangers shut down Nine Zero and demolished several dozen other offices of the MQM in Karachi. The Pakistan-based second rung leadership of the party distanced itself from Hussain, and the MQM broke into many fragments.

The effect of that had to be felt this election. Outside polling stations in Karachi’s teeming neighbourhoods, there was none of the usual excitement around the tents of the MQM-Pakistan, a name the party’s local leadership has adopted to differentiate itself from London-based remnant of MQM. The lack of preparation was evident.

Back in the day, the MQM would make even a local body election memorable, with full mobilisation of cadres and supporters. On July 25 though, at many polling stations, the party was short of polling agents. It is difficult to imagine that a party that ran the breadth of Karachi with thousands of workers at its beck and call did not have enough personnel at its disposal for a general election.

Organisational weakness, internal squabbles, lack of funds and a surge in non-traditional voters have all contributed to the dismal performance of Karachi’s leading political party this election.

For the first time in 30 years, the residents of Karachi resoundingly rejected the MQM. In the last general elections, Khan’s PTI had managed to bring out about 800,000 non-traditional voters but lost because of the MQM’s organisational efficiency. This time around, the MQM-P did not have that.

“We can say there was a boycott by MQM supporters, but besides that, voters in the Muhajir areas rejected Hussain’s boycott appeal and voted overwhelmingly for Imran Khan,” says a political analyst and a long-time observer of the city’s politics.

The PTI demolished even the PPP in its stronghold of Lyari, trouncing Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari’s son and political heir Bilawal Bhutto. Lyari, a Dharavi-like neighbourhood in the heart of Karachi, is where Benazir and Zardari chose to get married. But hit by crime and a crippling water shortage, its residents opted for change this time. The PPP, however, bettered its 2013 performance in rural Sindh for the National Assembly, and has retained the provincial assembly. Bilawal won from Larkana, the other seat he contested.

For Imran Khan, winning Karachi was important as it boosts his claim that his party is a national entity with its appeal spread across the country. His campaign slogan in Karachi was “Wazir-e-Azam Karachi se (Prime Minister from Karachi)”.

Going by preliminary results, the MQM-P has lost most of its traditional seats in Karachi to the PTI, which has emerged as the largest political force in the metropolis. Khan has also been elected from a traditional MQM stronghold in the city, pushing the MQM-P candidate to second place.

“The MQM used to operate like a well-oiled machine,” says Ammar Shahbazi, a journalist who has extensively covered the party. “Starting from the unit, responsibilities would be assigned to workers. They would go door to door to nudge voters to come out. In areas like Gulistan-e-Jauhar, each apartment complex used to have a go-to person for the MQM, who would know how many potential voters there were in each building and their political leaning.”

Just a few years ago, residents would see bodies dumped on the streets of the city — victims of gang wars, ethnic and sectarian violence and political rivalries. But since the security operation, there has been peace in the city although there are accusations of of rights abuses and extra-judicial killings. However, there are no two views that it has dismantled violent groups. It was also the reason that this was the first violence-free election in the past three decades.

The MQM-P alleged rigging, saying their political agents were prevented from being in the polling stations when the votes were counted. They have also claimed that “hidden forces”, a not-so-veiled reference to the military establishment, were behind the plan to hand over the city to the PTI.

PTI leaders, however, claimed that the disappointment of the city’s residents with the MQM and Khan’s charismatic personality are the two key factors behind their win.

In a social media post, Laurent Gayer, a French researcher and author of Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle of the City, says, “For now, what one can’t deny is that the PTI has obviously been able to speak to various populations of the city regardless of their ethnicity. These populations, and individual voters among them, might have had different reasons to vote for the party, but this may still signal a transition towards a new kind of post-ethnic politics,”

But will this be a one-off victory for the PTI in Maximum City or has the worm turned for good? Given all the uncertainties, that is a question on which no one wants to stick their necks out for now.