THE MQM and the PML-N have agreed to establish a combined opposition in the elected assemblies. The controversy about the MQM's decision to opt out of the PPP-led coalition being a mere repeat performance or a final parting of ways seems to be over in favour of the latter option.
But is it? The positions of the MQM ministries in Islamabad and governor of Sindh remain vacant. The PPP government continues to throw feelers about a possible reconciliation. There are no indications about a debate over the MQM's decision to switch sides within the party ranks, because of the peculiar hierarchical situation of the leadership.
Apparently, the brinkmanship of the PPP and the MQM went wrong at some point as each tested the nerves of the other. In the end, the PPP gambled and lost. The MQM's reaction was rooted in its war of attrition over the last three years of tightrope walking, with occasional breakdowns. The MQM's unfulfilled demand for two seats of the AJK Assembly proved to be the last straw.
The latest spate of violence in Karachi has been blamed on the activists of the two ethnic parties the MQM and the ANP. The MQM's style remains characteristically high-pitched. The fact that it has developed high stakes in the system would have transformed it from a street-savvy radical party to a status-quo one, adept at devising ways and means of staying in power.
The fact that the MQM enjoys a monopoly on representation of Mohajirs in the Sindh and federal legislatures is both its strength and weakness. It is its strength because its Mohajir vote gives the party a viable and visible platform to assert its organisational interests. Its weakness lies in its propensity to consider its relations with other parties in terms of 'with us or against us'. In recent times, its relations with Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif, the PPP and the ANP have been shaped by this binary opposition.
This adversarial framework of discourse has led the party to ethnic overbidding. Control over Mohajir representation gives it enormous potential to keep its organisational and ideological resources at high alert most of the time. The idea is to make its presence felt in the politics of the province from a position of strength. Various issues of governance — relating to inflation, electricity and petrol charges, and law and order — made it oppositionist even within, and now outside, the government.
The MQM twice opted out of the alliance with PPP (1988-89, 2008-11) and twice with the PML-N (1990-92, 1997-98). Its alliance with the army under Musharraf (2003-07) was relatively longer. While its years of political wilderness (1992-97, 1998-2002) weakened it considerably, a share in the government in the 2000s expanded its political clout. The party is obliged to adopt a strategy to come back to power one way or the other. The PML-N, the only other contender of power at the national level, was the obvious choice.
The option of going back to the PPP was least destabilising for the two parties and the system at large. Will the party now manoeuvre an eventual alliance with the PML-N? Only, the latter's absence in Sindh is not promising for the next round of elections in that province, where the PPP comprehensively dominates the Sindhi vote. An attempt at government formation by the new alliance would require a new round of rigging and horse-trading much as in the 1990s.
As a party of angry young men — not necessarily by virtue of age — the MQM feels alienated by its poor advance in pursuit of its ambition of becoming an all-Pakistan party with a political presence in Punjab and a middle-class party instead of a Mohajir ethnic party. The PML-N may have even greater reservations about these matters than the PPP. However, at this moment the two parties are guided by their shared though different grievances against the PPP.
Securing electoral representation outside Sindh — in Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir and south Punjab, and demonstrating its 'progressive' nature in comparison with other parties (condemned en masse as feudal) have been the party's serious concerns. The non-seriousness of the PML-N and other parties about the MQM's agenda in view of the perceived contradiction between its Mohajir character and an all-Pakistan profile may not diminish that party's ambition. The MQM has declared a strategy of bringing the elections forward through street power and starting the countdown for the PPP government. This strategy is based on simultaneously increasing the pressure on the government through muscle-flexing and exploring the space for an electoral alliance. These developments have landed a crisis at the door of the PPP government.
There is a new home minister in charge in Karachi. There is the initiative to restore the commissionerate system, along with division of the metropolis into five districts. The shutdown in Karachi on Friday could have been bloodier had the MQM not withdrawn its call for strike. There is an indication that the anti-terrorist courts could be revived. The use of modern technology, including satellite, is also on the cards. Thus, the MQM's withdrawal from the government has transformed a political issue into an administrative one of law and order.
The intriguing question is whether the MQM's leadership has gone too far in its decision to call it a day for reverting to a position of sharing the political management of the province of Sindh with its erstwhile coalition partner. Obviously, the coming days and weeks will harden positions on the two sides. There is no clear picture on the horizon about the way the city and the province will get out of the quagmire.
The PML-N has kept a discreet distance from what is happening in the province. It realises that indulgence on its part will not bring about any political dividends and that the party will only lose by taking sides. That means that the onus for urban peace lies squarely on the three parties the PPP, the MQM and the ANP.
The writer is a professor at LUMS.