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DAWN: The MQM phenomenon - Zahid Hussain

DAWN: The MQM phenomenon - Zahid Hussain
 Posted on: 12/9/2015
It is not the victory itself but the scale of it that has stunned even the most ardent supporters of the party. The MQM’s triumph in the local government polls held in Karachi has once again proved wrong all those who had predicted its political demise. With its massive majority in the union councils, the party that was held responsible for all the ills suffered by this metropolis has been given the mandate to once again run its affairs.

Ironic as it may be, it is all about a political phenomenon called the MQM. What makes this party tick with the people despite its ‘unsavoury’ reputation is not hard to fathom for those who understand the political and social dynamics of this megacity.

For sure, it is not for the first time that the MQM has survived a targeted operation against it by the security forces and bounced back with a bigger public mandate. Yet its success in the latest LG polls carries much greater significance with its electoral success in the past having often been ascribed to its reign of terror and intimidation.

This time there is a difference. There was no such atmosphere of fear preventing the opposition from campaigning in the party’s heartland. In fact, the die was cast more so against the party with reports of its offices being frequently raided by the Rangers and its alleged militants being hunted down.

Some of them have also been reportedly killed in custody. There is a ban on airing Altaf Hussain’s telephonic addresses and the publication of his statements. On the day of the polling, the FIA registered a case against the MQM supremo charging him with the murder of Imran Farooq. Scotland Yard’s investigations against him and other senior party leaders allegedly involved in the murder and money-laundering cases are reportedly in their final stages.

Even the huge change in the demography and ethnic balance in the city away from the Urdu-speaking population, does not seem to have affected the party’s popular mass base. Perhaps, the most plausible reason for the voters’ continued loyalty to the party ignoring all its excesses and its alleged involvement in criminal activities is that it is so deeply entrenched among the people it represents. No other political party has been able to build such an organisation at the grass-roots level to present any serious challenge to the MQM’s political domination.

This has to do largely with the growing public frustration over the way Karachi has been administered by the Sindh government, depriving the city of some 20 million people of an elected local government. The city is run by a provincial minister and officials who have little stake in the city. The marginalisation of the local population in government jobs and the absence of even basic municipal facilities have all added to the public anguish.

Surely as part of the coalition government in the previous term, the MQM has also been responsible for many of these problems faced by the city, but it is still seen by its voters as the only political party raising its voice on these issues. The other parties have failed to present any alternative to the MQM.

One other factor contributing to the MQM’s latest electoral success is the backlash against what is widely perceived as a selective operation targeting the party. It may be true that the ongoing operation has, by and large, the public’s support, and undoubtedly it has delivered some positive results by bringing down the level of violence in the city. But there have also been reports of excesses by the Rangers that may have gone in favour of the MQM.

I heard many stories during my last visit to Karachi a few weeks ago about the Rangers having broken into houses and indiscriminately arrested young men without any charge in certain localities. In some cases, it was alleged the young men were released after paying extortion money to the security agencies.

A particularly horrific story was about an expat­riate Pakistani doctor who returned to Karachi to serve voluntarily at one of the most reputable charity hospitals when he was arrested, as someone in the family had given funds to the MQM. He was allegedly tortured in detention. He left the country after being released. Such incidents have fed into the sympathy vote for the MQM.

Most shocking, however, was the complete routing of the much-touted PTI-JI alliance that only won some 20 seats between the two parties. The alliance was projected to give a tough fight to the MQM, but there was really no competition in the end. The margin of defeat suffered even by senior leaders of the two parties is an indicator of a virtually one-sided contest.

While the Jamaat-i-Islami, once a formidable poli­tical force in the city, seems to have consistently lost ground, it was the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf which had pledged to dent the MQM fortress that presented the sorriest picture. In fact, the PTI seems to have lost even the political space it had gained in the 2013 general elections when unknown first-time party candidates managed to get a significant number of votes even in the most secure MQM constituencies.

The PTI 2013 wave had long subsided failing to turn into the promised tsunami washing away the MQM citadel. In fact, the PTI in Karachi has never been able to move out of its Defence-Clifton enclave. Moreover, the party mainly concentrated on negative campaigning instead of focusing on a concrete programme addressing the major problems faced by the city. Its alliance with the JI seems to have also eroded its support base that largely comes from the upper middle socially liberal class.

With the MQM now taking over the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation a clash with the Sindh government over the devolution of power seems inevitable. It is quite apparent that the provincial government is determined not to give up its administrative and financial control over KMC. This could lead to a new and more intense power struggle fuelling political unrest in the city. The voters have given their verdict and it must be respected.

The writer is an author and journalist.
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10/24/2016 3:05:11 PM