The April 29 by-elections for Karachi’s multi-ethnic NA-249 constituency threw up a surprise.

In the 2018 elections, this seat had been narrowly won by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Indeed, the 2018 elections became highly controversial as a whole when most parties claimed that they had been ‘engineered’ by the ‘military establishment’ to hand Imran Khan’s PTI a victory.

Fact or not, the 2018 elections results, at least in Karachi, were consistent with what most Karachi-based analysts have been suggesting: that Karachi’s electoral politics has been mutating. This is mainly because of the manner in which the city’s ethnic landscape is transforming.

Karachi has always been known as a ‘mini-Pakistan,’ with a population that is a mixture of various ethnic groups. From 1947 onwards, the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs have remained the majority ‘ethnic’ community in this city. But their numbers relative to the overall population have been decreasing over time.

For example, till the late 1980s, over 50 percent of Karachi’s population was Mohajir. According to the 1998 census, this majority fell to 48 percent. Experts on Karachi believe that the current percentage of the city’s Mohajir population is not more than 43 percent. 

What is most interesting is the speed with which Karachi’s Pakhtun population has been increasing. In a 2019 study for the Observer Research Foundation, Kirti M. Shah writes that Karachi’s Pakhtun community will overtake the Mohajirs in size in less than 30 years.

The PPP and PML-N’s close positions at the top in Karachi’s recent by-elections’ results may herald a change in the city’s political scene in the next general elections

Karachi has never had an ethnic majority that has been able to sustain its hegemony. From the 19th century till 1947, Karachi had a Sindhi-speaking majority. From 1947, however, this majority was overtaken by the influx of Mohajirs. Such is the ever-evolving nature of the city’s cosmopolitanism.

And here lies the key to understanding Karachi’s electoral politics ever since the electoral dominance of the Mohajir nationalist party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), began to disintegrate.

So what was the surprising bit about the result of the NA-249 by-elections? The seat was won by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). But whereas analysts sitting in Islamabad and Lahore were left perplexed, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) asked for a re-recount, many seasoned observers in Karachi were not as shocked by the outcome.

The left-liberal PPP, once the country’s dominant political party, became a Sindh-based force after being voted out of federal power in 2013. It swept the elections in Sindh in 2018, but struggled in the province’s capital city Karachi. However, even when the PPP was a nationwide force, it could not win more than a handful of seats in Karachi.

But in 2018, once the centre-right PTI won the majority of seats in Karachi and proved that the MQM’s electoral hegemony was now a fading phenomenon, the PPP tried to not only exploit the ruptures in MQM’s fortunes, but also began to calculate what was required to attract voters in the city’s shifting constituencies.

Many constituencies in the city have been redrawn because of a delimitation process. Such constituencies are large and ethnically diverse. The PML-N, whose main vote bank is in the country’s most populous province, the Punjab, too saw an opportunity to finally notch a win in Karachi.

But a Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) activist in Baldia Town (part of NA-249) told me that the PML-N was trying to attract only the constituency’s Punjabi voters, believing that NA-249’s Pakhtun votes — which were mostly cast for PTI and JUI (now a PML-N ally) in 2018 — would fall in its lap because of the disastrous performance of the PTI government in Islamabad. 

Of course, a majority of voters across Pakistan cast their votes for candidates who they believe would best serve their constituency’s economic and political interests. But it is my belief that this is more pronounced in a city such as Karachi.

Even when the MQM was ruling the roost here, the party had to couple the emotionalism of Mohajir nationalism with developmental work. Nevertheless, since it was in and out of Sindh’s provincial governments that have been mostly headed by the PPP, the MQM often found itself unable to provide the economic resources that attract voters. This frustration often led the party to use strong-armed tactics, which made it controversial before it crashed and split into competing factions.

The bulk of the Mohajir vote in 2018 was gobbled up by the PTI. In that year’s elections, deprived of a cohesive Mohajir nationalist outlet, a majority of Mohajirs receded to their pre-MQM electoral disposition of either voting for a national party or a religious party. In this case, these were PTI and the far-right Sunni Barelvi Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP).

Mohajirs understand the PPP as a Sindhi party. And this is not a recent occurrence. The Mohajirs of Karachi saw the PPP as a Sindhi party even when the PPP was once also Punjab’s largest party. 

According to A.K. Afridi, a young Pakhtun PPP worker in Karachi whose family arrived from Dir in KP during the Ayub Khan era in the 1960s, PPP’s central figure in Karachi, Saeed Ghani, has ‘most accurately’ understood exactly how to derive maximum electoral support in a city where there is no hegemonic ethnic or political force anymore.

In 2018, the PTI, as a ‘fresh, new force’ found itself perfectly poised to receive votes in Karachi that were liberated from the clutches of MQM and its influence. But to Afridi, none of PTI’s leadership in Karachi had any clue how to sustain its wins beyond providing empty rhetoric.

Afridi echoed the analysis of two of the most astute observers of Karachi’s electoral politics, Zia-ur-Rehman and Ali Arqam, when he said that Ghani concentrated on consolidating support from NA-249’s large Pakhtun community that had openly exhibited its disappointment towards PTI. 

According to Afridi, Ghani wants to use the PPP’s status as a ruling party of Sindh, which can get things done, especially in the impoverished areas of the city with significant non-Mohajir populations. The city’s Sindhi and Baloch are already PPP voters. Ghani wants to now construct a collective Pakhtun, Punjabi, Sindhi and Baloch voting block for the PPP, by concentrating solely on delivery.

Interestingly, the former mayor of Karachi, Mustafa Kamal, who split from the MQM and formed his own party, the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), is thinking along the same lines. Going beyond Mohajir nationalism, he promised to ‘serve all Karachiites.’ But unlike the PPP in NA-249, Kamal managed to also attract disgruntled Mohajir PTI voters. His party came fourth, but managed to beat the MQM. 

The turn-out in the by-elections was only just over 21 percent. But as Tahir Mehdi writes in Shujag, the trend set here has the potential of changing the city’s political scene in the next general elections. Even if the PML-N is able to snatch the NA-249 seat in a recount, it will still show that a party which doesn’t have a foothold in city is now able to draw electoral traction here because of a transforming Karachi.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 9th, 2021

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