Will the new local government make Karachi great again?

It all depends on who forms the next government and what kind of mandate and leverage it enjoys.
Published October 14, 2022

Originally published on October 14, 2022

Karachi has been consistently ranked among the most unliveable cities in the world.

The city of lights seems to have fallen into the darkness of neglect. With every passing year, the entire municipal machinery and infrastructure seems to be inching closer to a total collapse. In fact, most of its municipal services, including its transport network, fresh water supply, and drainage network, already qualify as nonfunctional.

In fact, so dire is the situation that now the authorities don’t even attempt to gloss over their shortcomings. The newest fad is to lay the blame squarely on the people for the city’s state and even accuse them of exaggerating the issues.

Amid all this, the upcoming local government elections — now scheduled for October 23 after being postponed twice — have gained unprecedented anticipation.

The citizens of Karachi perhaps see these elections as the harbinger of hope for a possible turnaround of the city. However, hope without taking into account the ground realities often leads to disappointment. What must be understood here is to what extent can the upcoming elections alter the city’s fate.

Question of the hour

The answer to this lies in two inherent questions. One, what could be the potential outcome of the upcoming elections and to what extent can the results be predicted at this stage? Two, what mandate and leverage would the new government have to implement the requisite reforms?

To answer each of these questions, we first need to understand how things worked around the time of the last local government elections in Karachi that were held in 2015.

Yet again, three important things need to be evaluated on this account. One, what was the outlook of the city’s administrative/electoral boundaries back then? Two, what was the political orientation of these administrative boundaries? And three, how does that administrative structure look today?

Let’s start with an overview of the local government system in Pakistan. Since the promulgation of the the 18th constitutional amendment, the formation of local governments has been made a provincial subject. In Sindh, which has been ruled by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) since 2008, this subject falls under the Local Government ministry.

Devolution to the grassroots

In 2015, the city was divided into 246 Union Committees and Councils, collectively abbreviated as UCs. A UC is the smallest administrative and constituent unit in an urban and rural setting, respectively.

These UCs merge to form district governments, of which there were five in 2015. These district governments are called the District Municipal Corporations (DMCs), each of which is headed by a chairperson. On top of these district governments is the city or metropolitan government, called the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), headed by the mayor.

On election day, the public elects a set of members for each respective UC, including the chairperson and the deputy chairperson. From here on, the chairperson of each UC votes for the election of the mayor and chairperson of the respective DMC, whereas the deputy chairperson of the UC votes for the election of the deputy mayor and the deputy chairperson of the DMC. Hence, the UCs form the basic and most critical block of the structure that forms the local government.

The power struggle

The local political scene of Karachi has witnessed its fair share of turmoil, in addition to severe bouts of violence on ethnic grounds over the last few decades. For at least two of those decades, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement — Karachi’s indigenous political party, now split into various factions — dominated its political canvas.

The MQM was considered the representative of the majority ethnic group of the city, the Muhajirs. The PPP, meanwhile, always rivalled the MQM in Karachi and enjoyed significant support among the non-Muhajir communities.

These ethnic fault lines were evident in the 2015 local government elections following which three of the five district governments — East, West and Central — were formed by the MQM-Pakistan. All three of the districts are densely populated and are predominantly home to the Muhajir community.

Meanwhile, the remaining two district governments — Malir and South — were formed by PPP. These two districts have a mixed composition in terms of their ethnicity, income per capita, and population density. District South, in particular, is a mix of upscale towns such as DHA and Clifton, which have low population densities, compared to other towns in the district such as Lyari and Keamari.

Similarly, District Malir is predominantly suburban, housing numerous villages as well as some towns with a high population density. Towns such as Lyari and Keamari, as well as the suburban areas have traditionally been PPP strongholds.

Even though the MQM-P emerged as the winner in the 2015 election, the margin of victory was thin and the PPP followed closely in terms of the total district governments formed. Since 2015, not only has the city experienced major changes in its administrative structure, but also in its political landscape.

With regards to the administrative structure, changes have been made in the physical form of the UCs and the number of DMCs by the PPP, the latter having been increased to seven.

During the same period, Karachi also witnessed a dramatic transformation in its political environment. In the 2018 general elections, the city rejected the once popular MQM and crowned the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf as the face of the city, with the latter securing a large majority of the national and provincial seats from the city.

Moreover, the old timer, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), has also regained relevance after a long struggle for power since they last ran the affairs of the city’s local government in 2003.

Pre-poll rigging allegations

Interestingly, the changes brought about in the administrative structure by the PPP have been challenged by all other political parties, including the PTI, JI, and the MQM-P, and have been a matter of serious contention between these political players.

The opposing political parties have labeled these changes pre-poll rigging and alleged that the PPP government has made these changes to unfairly influence its electoral mandate in the city. They claim that the process of delimitation has completely ignored the principles of population density upon which the UCs and DMCs are notified. It is also contended that the revision in the structure of the UCs will heavily favour the PPP, which would in turn also reflect in the electoral setting of the two new districts.

If this allegation turns out to be valid, the PPP could emerge as one of the leading contenders for the position of mayorship of Karachi. This potential development holds a lot of significance since the PPP has always been perceived to have its vote bank restricted to rural Sindh.

However, with the emergence of the PTI and the JI on the political scene of the city — and the fact that the PPP’s governance has remained highly questionable — it makes it difficult to predict the outcome of the upcoming LG elections.

As for the new government’s leverage and ability to implement reforms, that may still be a distant reality unless the people of Karachi rise up against the injustices that have made this city unliveable.

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