PTI in the summer of discontent

Updated 04 Jul 2018

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THE long-held belief that Karachi ‘belongs’ to the MQM — or at least did until recently — may not really be true.

If you look at the voting patterns in past general elections and take even the last three: 63 per cent of registered voters in the city in 2002, 53pc in 2008, and 51pc in 2013, did not even bother to cast their ballot. (Given that MQM activists have been blamed for massive rigging in these polls, the actual numbers of those who abstained could be substantially higher.) The majority in Karachi was at best indifferent, or felt powerless to stop the MQM juggernaut.

Nevertheless, in 2013, voters in Karachi made a statement at the ballot box. For the first time in a long while, there was a new player on the block, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). The party won the second highest number of votes in the city. The results demonstrated the possibility of making inroads into what were until then solid MQM constituencies, areas such as Liaquatabad, Gulshan-i-Iqbal and Azizabad, the latter in which the formidable nerve centre of the party, Nine Zero, was located. Even the PPP citadel of Lyari was nearly breached by PTI.

Take a look: Security agencies forcing PML-N candidates to switch loyalties, claims Nawaz

Clearly, Karachi had spoken, even though the PTI won only one National Assembly seat and three provincial assembly seats from the city. Its residents were thirsting for change. And who better to vote for than the party that had campaigned on the slogan of tabdeeli?

Since then, what has happened to the tsunami in the city by the sea? This time around, the fervour is noticeably absent. In the eyes of the urban voter, beset with multiple problems arising from a decrepit infrastructure and appalling service delivery, the PTI addressed none of their core concerns. To them, dharnas in Islamabad and “35 punctures” were irrelevant; it only confirmed that post elections, Karachi had become an afterthought for the PTI.

“I won’t be making the same mistake again,” says Mushtaq Ahmed, a Punjabi Hazara living in Keamari. “Even though the PTI didn’t win a seat from here in the general election, the nazim and naib nazim in this UC belonged to the PTI and they didn’t even do anything about the horrendous sewage problems here.”

A psychologist residing in Karachi’s South district — from where the PTI’s Arif Alvi won his National Assembly seat beating MQM’s Khushbakht Shujaat by almost three times the vote — says she doesn’t even plan to cast her ballot. Like many others in this area, which includes some of the more upscale localities, she had voted for the first time, and voted the PTI. “No one I know is even discussing the elections this time. The PTI had managed to create a sense of nationalism in 2013. Now I feel the situation is hopeless.”

(This time, Mr Alvi may have a tougher fight, as his constituency after de-limitation also includes Old City areas where the huge Memon and Kutchi population is not the PTI’s natural constituency. However, they do come out to vote, and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik could make a dent in this historically MQM vote-bank.)

It does not help that the PTI during the last five years has neglected to build an organisational framework in Karachi. “The party has no grass-roots level mobilisation of voters,” asserts Dr Noman Ahmed, chairman Architecture and Planning at NED University. “They had substantial youth sentiment behind them in 2013. To capture that, the PTI’s youth wing should have been strong, but that isn’t the case.” Moreover, the PTI hasn’t engaged with those who understand the city and its issues. “They haven’t worked with civil society and community organisations, which was critical,” says urban planner Arif Hasan. “Imran Khan is far removed from the politics of Karachi.”

According to Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a visiting professor at the mass communication department of Karachi University, “politics means struggling for the people, doing activities that keep political parties in contact with voters. For instance, water shortage is a huge problem in Karachi. But they ran no campaign against it. Even the Jamaat-i-Islami [by picking a fight with K-Electric] has done more.”

Also, Karachi has historically been an anti-establishment city. The perception that the PTI is pro-establishment has alienated many Urdu-speaking voters in Karachi, something that underscores the complicated relationship they have with the MQM. They may resent the strong-arm tactics once employed by the party, but the Rangers-led operation that has precipitated the fracturing of the MQM has engendered a siege mentality. This was a major factor in the PTI’s crushing defeat in the Azizabad by-election and the local government polls in 2015, despite the impressive showing in the general elections two years earlier.

On the other hand, the ethnic factor may also help the PTI retain Karachi’s considerable, if notoriously fickle, Pakhtun vote bank. In 2013, the PTI came a close second to the MQM in then NA-239 (now NA-248), which includes swathes of Pakhtun populated areas. It is a measure of how deeply entrenched identity politics has become in Karachi that, according to Talat Aslam, editor at The News, PTI’s non-Pakhtun office-bearers in the city “try to play down the impression that their party is becoming a representative of the Pakhtun population”.

However, while the PTI may have squandered a golden opportunity in Karachi, it does have a plan — that is, Imran himself contesting from Karachi’s NA-243, even though that comprises some pockets of Sindhi-speaking but largely Urdu-speaking areas such as Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Bahadurabad, etc. It might be a gamble but one that could even turn out to be an ace up its sleeve. As several analysts point out, there is no one of his stature standing from that constituency. “Even though he’ll have to work hard to win it, Imran’s very presence could create a momentum for the PTI, and inject the excitement lacking at the moment,” maintains Mr Aslam.

But Karachi in 2018 is very different from Karachi in 2013. “The PTI hasn’t come up to the voters’ expectations. The MQM is in total disarray. For the PTI voter, the biggest challenge today is who to vote for,” says Dr Noman. He believes the situation is still fluid. “The silent voter base of other parties may turn out on polling day and change everything.” Mustafa Kamal’s PSP may also create some hiccups as an alternate. Even the PPP could cash in on the free-for-all electoral landscape. In other words, no one will be betting on the outcome of the elections in Karachi any time soon.

Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2018