KARACHI has jealously guarded its distinct political self all through the country’s history. It has always defied national trends and made choices different from the rest of the country. Blame it on the identity politics of its dominant migrant population or on its metropolitan character in a largely feudal-tribal country, the city has maintained a distance from other areas.
It put up stiff resistance to Ayub Khan’s machinations when it vehemently supported Fatima Jinnah while the rest of erstwhile West Pakistan had fallen in line with the general. It largely stood aloof from the populist movement of Z.A. Bhutto that had swept across the length and breadth of the country in the 1970s. It also refused to partake of the bipolar politics of the PPP and PML-N that became the hallmark of the 1990s. It preferred to remain in its own neatly defined niche.
This uniqueness of the biggest metropolis can partly be attributed to our first-past-the-post electoral system. Because front runners with even marginal leads take all, election results hide more political realities than they reveal.
The PTI’s rise in Punjab is in sync with its ascent in Karachi.
In Karachi, however, the front runner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, has been way ahead of the rest since its inception in the 1980s. But still the factors shaping political developments in the city have been brewing in the lower columns of the election results.
The PPP was runner-up in Karachi in the first general elections of 1970 as most seats were won by the religious parties. The majority of voters endorsed ‘Islamic ideology’ while the rest of the country heeded Bhutto’s socialist overtures.
The PPP remained an underdog in the next three general elections. Following the first Operation Clean-up, the MQM was barred from taking part in the National Assembly elections of 1993. This turned the electoral race in Karachi into a lacklustre struggle between the PML-N and PPP with a markedly low voter turnout. That was, however, the first time that Karachi voters who do not empathise with Mohajir politics had had a choice other than the PPP.
The PML tried to sustain its small foothold and challenged the PPP for second position in the 1997 elections. The latter party was anyway faced with a phenomenal countrywide collapse and struggled to sustain itself in the elections.
The tables were turned on both in the next election in 2002. With the PPP and PML forced into a corner by Gen Musharraf, the religious party alliance called the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal made the most of the situation. Karachi became a contest between the MQM and MMA, with the Bhutto-less PPP pushed to a distant third position and the exiled Nawaz Sharif’s PML disappearing into thin air.
The MMA’s religious ideology was not new to Karachi’s voters. But the religious parties of the 1970s were able to mix both ethnic identity and the religion card in the same deck. In 2002, they stood separated. The Mohajir voters who considered religion secondary to their politics went the MQM way while those vested more in their religious moorings opted for the MMA. The latter polled 27.4pc of Karachi’s votes compared to 39.2pc for the MQM.
The MMA bubble burst in 2008 and the PPP was back at second position on Karachi’s coveted victory stand. The PPP’s recapture, however, did not last long as Karachi awarded the second position to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf in the 2013 elections. Of the PTI’s 18 candidates for 20 national seats in Karachi, one was victorious, 16 were runners-up and only one was at a lower position.
On the face of it, it seems a simple case of one party’s loss becoming another’s gain. But looking at the vast differences in the political takes of the PPP and PTI, it is hard to digest that the same voter switched sides.
The two parties are cast in different moulds. The PPP’s original 1970s foundations were built on the support of the working classes and sections of the middle class with working-class ideologies. From that point onwards, the party owed its decline not only to the follies of its successive governments but also to the ruthless thrashing of leftist ideologies across the globe in the aftermath of the Cold War era.
Fast-paced globalisation has pushed back the working masses from the political frontline and added intriguing new dimensions to ethnic identity questions and quests. The middle class has expanded and abandoned its working-class ideals. Its own self-interest now defines its politics.
A whole new generation that was born in and around the period these changes started taking place is now ripe for politics. This new tech-savvy generation’s take on culture, ethnicity and politics is different from its predecessors and it is desperate to find political expression.
The PTI has been successful in harnessing this new generation as its first line of voters. The PPP’s working-class rhetoric finds no takers in this class. The PTI plays to this new political class whose association with ethnic identities has been diluted by the excesses of globalisation.
A more important aspect of this development is that the PTI not only propelled itself to the second slot in Karachi in 2013, it also occupied the same position in the second biggest urban centre of Pakistan, Lahore, where 11 of its 13 candidates stood second while one won and another ranked lower.
The PTI’s rise in Punjab is in sync with its ascent in Karachi and it is not based on ideologically driven working-class unity like the one harped on by the PPP. So have the middle classes across Pakistan’s diverse ethnic map finally struck a common chord? If yes, this will be instrumental in shaping the future of our politics, for better or for worse.
But Karachi is still deceptive when it comes to an even bigger question. Will this new middle-class unity remain an undercurrent of its politics or will it come to the surface and assume a front role? The answer will take some time to work out but the results of the upcoming by-elections in Karachi will definitely offer a clue.
The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.
Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2015