Photographer: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg

Exiled Leader's Fall Creates Room for Sharif's Party in Karachi

  • Pakistan’s ruling party chasing voters in key 2018 state poll
  • Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N has little historic influence in state

Pakistan’s ruling party is looking to take advantage of Karachi’s fractured politics ahead of elections next year, making a push into the nation’s largest city and turbulent commercial heart where it’s historically had little influence.

With the national economy expanding, power blackouts fading and the coastal metropolis experiencing a relative calm in its violent history after an army clamp down on extremist and political militias, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party could seize the moment. It is seeking to win as many as three of its 20 national seats and about a quarter, or 10, of the regional seats, Mohammad Zubair, the governor of Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh, said in an interview in Karachi, its capital.

A transit point for everything from opium and arms to cotton and rice, Karachi is the financial heart of Pakistan -- it pays more than 65 percent of the country’s tax and has an economy worth $68 billion.

For decades the Muttahida Quami Movement has dominated the city. The party, which represents Karachi’s Mohajir-majority who fled India after partition in 1947, is led by the erratic leader-in-exile Altaf Hussain who issues orders from his suburban home in north London’s Edgware. The MQM is entwined in a history of violent competition that has hampered the city’s development. However, the military push since 2013 has arrested hundreds of MQM members and prevented the party from shutting down the city of about 20 million people.

The party’s split accelerated in August, when Hussain sparked riots after addressing hundreds of followers in the city by phone, his voice relayed via loudspeakers. The army arrested senior leaders in Karachi and bulldozed MQM properties. Farooq Sattar, the MQM’s most senior member in Pakistan, renounced Hussain’s leadership, the first time the party’s Pakistan lawmakers openly split from the group in London. Mustafa Kamal, the former MQM mayor of Karachi, also led defectors earlier last year to form the Pak Sarzameen Party.

Nadeem Nusrat, the MQM convenor and aide to Hussain in London, didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment, nor did Sattar, the MQM’s Karachi-based leader. There is no formal date set for the state election, which is due to be held in 2018.

“That party has disintegrated, so there’s huge political space,” Zubair, a politician aligned with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, said in his colonial era office and former home of the country’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

“Whatever the federal government does here in terms of economic activities, or the provincial government does here, or the local government does here will translate into which political party is able to go and seek maximum votes.”

Read more: London exile Hussain is losing control of Pakistan’s largest city

Wider Sindh is controlled by the Pakistan Peoples Party, the nation’s second largest opposition group. Ethnic tensions have risen in recent years in Karachi due to an influx of migration, particularly from the northern Pashtun speaking areas along the Afghan border, along with competition from other parties.

Despite security being bolstered by patrols and policing by paramilitary forces, Zubair conceded it’s “difficult” to marshal funds effectively when Karachi and Sindh are split between a multitude of political parties. That’s in contrast to Punjab, the nation’s most populous province, which is controlled by Sharif’s PML-N.

Urban Funding

“The gap between Sindh and the rest of Punjab for example has widened so much that it needs strong doses” of investment, said Zubair, a former privatization minister until his appointment as Sindh’s governor in January. But “it’s not so simple, there’s politics involved.”

A lack of reliable polling in Pakistan means it’s hard to gauge how the MQM’s splits and the PML-N’s efforts will affect the 2018 vote. A signal of the MQM’s enduring popularity in the city was seen in August when Waseem Akhtar, an MQM member who was arrested in July on charges of sedition and terrorism that he denied, ran for mayor from prison and was elected and later released.

If Karachiites continue to feel safe and blackouts remain low, the PML-N “may well lure voters -- but, overall, I do not see them creating a chasm -- a dent, yes,” said Burzine Waghmar, a member of the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “The MQM is no spent force.”

Zubair said his new job, which is ceremonial and has no constitutional power, is to market Sindh to investors. He is looking to set up an Urban Development Fund to funnel private sector finance and revamp infrastructure in Karachi, declining to provide details as it’s only been discussed in recent weeks.

“This is the time to make economic delivery,” Zubair said. The PML-N “will definitely make inroads.”