The provincial governments had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, before they fulfilled their constitutional duty to hold local bodies elections. Their reticence, while unjustifiable since the constitution explicitly calls for holding LB polls, can be explained by power politics. Those in power in the provinces were unwilling to lose funds and authority, a natural outcome of devolution. The problem was particularly acute in Sindh, where the PPP is in control of the provincial government; but the MQM always dominates Karachi. Even the holding of local elections has not helped matters as the MQM-PPP tussle, which dominates Karachi’s politics, continues to rage. The MQM is correct to complain as the PPP has done its best to negate the spirit, if not the law, of devolution. The most recent fight was sparked by the Sindh Assembly’s refusal to hear a bill proposing that control of the Karachi and Water Sewerage Board be handed over to incoming mayor Waseem Akhtar Khan instead of being under the local government minister. Since Article 140-A of the constitution calls for political, administrative and financial powers to be devolved, the MQM is correct in asking for control. The matter has now come to a head after drains around the city were blocked, causing overflows and traffic jams. The MQM has pointed to this as further proof that only the party can govern the city efficiently while the PPP is claiming there to be a conspiracy against the provincial government.
The truth is that the PPP had stacked the deck against the MQM even before the LB polls were held, rendering its results less meaningful than they should have been. In the last few years it introduced five amendments to the Sindh Building Control Ordinance, cutting the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation off from the planning and building control process. These gave the provincial government power over water, drainage, sewage and sanitation. On top of that it also created commercial and residential projects to give the provincial government greater revenue – at the cost of the KMC. The PPP has made its own reality on the ground, depriving Akhtar of the revenue he will sorely need to be an effective administrator. For him to get the money he needs, Akhtar will have to go to the provincial government, begging bowl in hand. This wrangling for power cannot be divorced from the larger MQM-PPP fight, much of which is playing out in the courts. Akhtar and other MQM leaders are currently facing charges of hate speech under anti-terrorism laws for listening to a speech of MQM Chief Altaf Hussain in which he criticised the army, while the Dr Asim Hussain case has also snared the MQM for allegedly ordering the former minister to provide treatment to accused terrorists. So far, the MQM has not reacted with the fire and brimstone one associates with the party. Its protests against the media blackout of Altaf Hussain’s speeches have been low-key and notably peaceful. But should the PPP continue to try and rule Karachi from the centre, the metropolis may be in for a rough few months.