A charged Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) has recently been holding public meetings and opening election offices in every nook and cranny of Karachi. This, despite the fact that the schedule for the February 8, 2024 general elections is yet to be announced.
The party is presenting itself as a strong and united force that is ready to go into the elections to recapture all the national and provincial assembly seats it lost to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in the 2018 general elections.
Since the 1988 general elections, the MQM, once united and led by its London-based founder Altaf Hussain, had always emerged as the single largest party in Karachi — with the exception of 1993, when it boycotted the polls on the National Assembly (NA) seats. It retained the position even in 2002, when the erstwhile Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal had challenged the MQM in its traditional constituencies and bagged six NA seats in Karachi.
But in the last general elections, held in 2018, when a fragmented MQM contested without the blessings of its founder, the party of Imran Khan beat MQM in the country’s commercial capital by winning 14 NA seats. The electoral presence of the MQM-P in the National Assembly shrunk to a mere seven from Karachi and Hyderabad, compared to 25 in 2013.
The MQM looked like it had been reduced to a paltry political entity following its dismal showing at the 2018 general elections. The growing factionalism within the party has led to a further bifurcation of its voter base. So, why are MQM-P leaders still optimistic about the party’s chances in the upcoming elections?
However, the confidence the MQM-P leaders have shown during their public appearances is said to be based on certain ‘promises’ — or what its detractors call assumptions. These promises are that neither will Altaf sympathisers be allowed to contest the polls as a group, or even as independent candidates, nor will the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) be in a position to field effective candidates, gather polling agents and run an effective election campaign.
LIFE POST-ALTAF HUSSAIN
According to a current leader of the MQM-P, who asks not to be named, “We are asked to paint a rosy picture that the upcoming elections will be a one-sided contest for us, that our candidates will easily regain their seats lost to the PTI in the 2018 general elections, and that the rest will be taken care of by ‘them’.” The ‘them’, of course, refers to the powers-that-be. “But the situation on the ground is totally the opposite of what we are portraying publicly.”
He further discloses: “First of all, we don’t have funds to run an effective election campaign. Never before had our candidates ever spent a dime on their election expenses. These were all borne by the party. But now we don’t have money and we are going to award the majority of the party tickets to those who possess resources to finance their own campaigns. The party of the middle class has no option but to field affluent people in the elections.”
One of the MQM-P sources that this writer spoke to confirmed this, saying that the party’s election board interviewed him for a provincial assembly seat and the first question they asked was whether he had Rs3.5 million to fund his election campaign.
The aforementioned MQM-P leader further adds, “Secondly, our party doesn’t enjoy the same or even half the public support it did when Altaf Hussain led it. Let’s admit it, the participation of local residents in our public meetings in Malir, Orangi Town, Liaquatabad, Korangi and Gulshan-i-Iqbal is, to say the least, not very impressive, compared to the programmes held before we parted ways with the London leadership.”
Despite these challenges, many MQM-P leaders are hopeful that, with the blessing of the mighty establishment, their party can win “13-14 NA seats” out of a total 22, and emerge as the single largest party of Karachi in the 2024 elections.
They say the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is the government-in-waiting and that’s why the MQM-P has made an electoral cooperation deal with the PML-N, given the fact that any seat adjustment agreement in Karachi will go in favour of the PML-N. At a recent huddle with PML-N leaders in Islamabad, the MQM-P is said to have suggested that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif should field Shehbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz from two Karachi National Assembly constituencies.
However, former senior MQM leader and founding secretary general of the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) Raza Haroon differs with this assessment. “It seems that, in the coming elections, MQM-P will struggle to even maintain its position from the 2018 elections, let alone claim its position of yesteryears,” he wagers.
Powerful circles do realise that the MQM-P, sans Altaf Hussain, seriously lacks public support. That’s why they persuaded all MQM factions within the country last year to sit and come together on a single platform. Despite reservations, three groups — the MQM-P, PSP and the PIB group — announced their merger earlier this year.
Haroon, who is not part of any faction at the moment, explains that the MQM-P has lost touch with the people following its role in the vote of no-confidence against the then PTI government and by joining the Pakistan Democratic Movement-led government.
“The vacuum of leadership led to the loss in 2018 to PTI,” claims Haroon. “The youth of the city, womenfolk and older adults too do not want to associate themselves with the MQM-P. Their heavy reliance on ethnic rhetoric has backfired and limits their outreach. The resurgence of the Jamaat-i-Islami [JI], especially under the stewardship of Hafiz Naeem, has provided the citizens with an alternate choice, because JI has been vocal about Karachi’s issues much more vociferously than the MQM-P.”
Haroon considers the MQM-P’s decision to boycott the January 15, 2023 local government elections as the “most damaging political decision”, and one that benefitted the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the JI. PPP now has the Urdu-speaking Murtaza Wahab as Karachi mayor, and history suggests that the parties with a sitting mayor win more seats in the general elections. So, in 2024, the major gainers in Karachi will be PPP and JI, Haroon predicts.
When asked to comment on the prospects of the MQM-P in the upcoming elections, US-based former MQM convener Dr Nadeem Nusrat says, “Only a fair and free elections can answer this question.” Dr Nusrat, who has been running his advocacy group Voice of Karachi after parting ways with the London-based MQM leadership, says, “MQM started as an organisation based on Mohajir ideology but steadily became a leader-centric entity to such an extent that critics described it as a cult of personality.
“Although this ‘iron hand’ model kept the party intact and delivered electoral success, it actively discouraged any notion of policy criticism, even positive, and the emergence of an alternate leadership. The disastrous consequences of this flawed model became evident when, following the August 22, 2016 saga, the party in Pakistan decided to work without its leader. Of course, the party was not ready for that.”
As a way forward, he suggests it is crucial to remove the sense of alienation and mistrust among Mohajirs towards the leadership of all MQM factions trying to represent urban Sindh.
“In the case of MQM-P, specific changes at the top are imminent,” Dr Nusrat says. “Most of its leaders are from the 1980s’ era. They did well for the party for many years. However, now it is time to introduce young leadership, people from civil society, educators, journalists, lawyers, the business community and those party workers, particularly women, who stood by the party during its toughest times.
“Additionally, MQM-P should not accept any ministries in the next government. The lust for staying in power has severely damaged its reputation. Its sole focus must be on delivering relief to the masses.”
GROWING INFLUENCE OF THE ESTABLISHMENT
Earlier in January, the MQM-P and PSP had announced their merger. Disgruntled MQM-P leader Dr Farooq Sattar also returned to the fold of the party as part of an establishment-brokered deal. Since then, it appears that the responsibility to save the nascent merger from any undoing lies on the establishment’s shoulders. Its footprints are quite visible in subsequent activities, from the distribution of top party offices to the silencing of dissenting voices within the party.
Background conversations with various MQM-P leaders confirm that the influence of the security establishment in party affairs has grown to the extent that it routinely decides what the MQM-P should do and what it should not.
In the party hierarchy, the highest rank is the convener, followed by senior deputy conveners, deputy conveners and then members of the coordination committee. After the merger, Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui continues to function as the MQM-P head as the party convener. Mustafa Kamal and Farooq Sattar were made senior deputy conveners, along with Nasreen Jalil and Amir Khan, while Anis Kaimkhani shared the position of deputy convener with Abdul Wasim, Khawja Izharul Hasan, former Karachi mayor Wasim Akhtar and Kaiful Wara. The number of coordination committee members has also crossed 70.
However, former Karachi mayor Akhtar, senior leader Amir Khan, former health minister Dr Saghir Ahmed and many other coordination committee members who had opposed the merger plan in any manner are no longer active in the party.
Insiders narrate an incident that can provide a little insight into what is happening behind closed doors. They say a heated argument took place between Mustafa Kamal and two members of the coordination committee, Wasim Aftab and Salim Tajik, at a meeting held at the party’s temporary headquarters in Bahadurabad a couple of months ago.
According to an insider who witnessed the whole episode and was privy to the details, “The situation reached a point where Kaimkhani rose from his seat and stood behind Kamal in order to give a clear message to the opposing side that their challenge to Kamal’s authority would not be tolerated. A few days later, both Aftab and Tajik were informed by certain quarters that they should stay home and not visit the MQM-P head office. Since then, they have not been seen in any party programmes.”
Another example, the insider says, of growing establishment interference was the recent inclusion of two members of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in the MQM-P. The party was initially reluctant to give them any organisational responsibility, but a phone call from the powers-that-be worked wonders and the two members were made joint in-charges of a key party forum.
A member of the MQM-P coordination committee reveals, “Yes, our people look up to ‘them’ [the establishment] for consultations, not for advice, before taking any major or minor decisions. And trust me, we are not alone, because every other party is doing the same thing and takes cues from ‘them’.”
He agrees that the merger between the PSP and the MQM-P would have been reversed a long time ago had the establishment not been protecting it. The tussle between Sindh Governor Kamran Tessori and Kamal is known to everyone. This could have ended the merger, but ‘responsible’ officials intervened and ensured that the governor should not have any role in the party’s organisational affairs, he says.
However, Haroon sees the merger as more of a takeover by the Kamal-led PSP. “The merger remained limited to uniting the leadership of three factions and failed to make a bigger impact on the supporters,” he says. “Several prominent pre-merger leaders of the MQM-P are nowhere to be seen, such as Wasim Akhtar, Amir Khan, Dr Sagheer Ahmed, Wasim Aftab, Salim Tajik, etc.
“The merger is seen more as a takeover rather than the beginning of a reconciliation process,” he says. “Basically, leadership failures of all three smaller factions [led by Khalid Maqbool, Kamal and Sattar] merged only to become a bigger failure. It may have been a success if they would’ve initially acknowledged their mistakes and made an effort to get everyone on board. But perhaps that wasn’t the intent — now it’s too late.”
However, Dr Nusrat believes that it’s too early to say anything with authority. “Some people believe that the merger has not met expectations, although I am not sure what those expectations were. I am not pessimistic, so I would argue that it has been less than a year since the merger occurred and, given the complex political situation in urban Sindh, we should wait a little longer before issuing a final verdict.”
THE LONDON FACTOR
MQM founder Altaf Hussain never held a formal party office when he was at the helm of affairs, from 1984 to 2016. He was the ‘Quaid-i-Tehreek’, or the leader of the movement, for the cadre until he made an incendiary speech on Aug 22, 2016. That speech resulted in a crackdown on the party’s Pakistan-based leaders and workers, who later distanced themselves from Hussain and announced taking control of the party from him.
Ever since then, Hussain has been facing an undeclared ban in the country, although the faction he is leading from London, commonly known as MQM-London (MQM-L), enjoys a substantial support base here.
Since he was not allowed to field candidates in the 2018 general elections, or the by-elections and the January 15 local government elections, the MQM-L boycotted all such polls and, as a result, turnout was very low — in some cases, less than 10 percent. One reason behind the MQM-P’s poor electoral performance is said to be the boycott call by Hussain.
Powerful circles do realise that the MQM-P, sans Hussain, seriously lacks public support. That’s why they persuaded all MQM factions within the country last year to sit together and come together on a single platform. Despite reservations, three groups — the MQM-P, PSP and the PIB group led by Sattar — announced their merger earlier this year. The fourth group within the country — the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, or MQM-Haqiqi, led by Afaq Ahmed — refused to join the merger bandwagon, despite the establishment’s carrot and stick policy.
Insiders claim the establishment opened a communication channel with the London leadership earlier this year and, as part of some confidence-building measures, unblocked the website of the MQM-L and allowed it to stage a rally in Korangi in July. A large number of MQM-L supporters and sympathisers took to the streets and staged the rally.
However, this development had panicked the MQM-P, which was then a coalition partner of the PDM-led federal government, and it ran from pillar to post to find out whether the establishment had struck a deal with Mr Hussain or not. They asked the powers-that-be to tell them clearly whether they needed them or if they should pack their bags and head home/abroad. They were also apprehensive that Karachi might descend into violence if Hussain’s return were allowed.
These concerns were also publicly expressed by MQM-P convener Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui at a press conference. He argued that the Korangi rally staged by the MQM-L was part of a conspiracy against the ‘city’s peace.’
Since their seven votes in the NA were badly needed by the Shehbaz Sharif-led government then, the Rangers and police launched a crackdown on the MQM-L and picked up over 300 of its supporters, including its focal person in Karachi, Aftab Baqai. The MQM-L had then alleged that the raids and arrests were carried out at the behest of the MQM-P.
However, unlike in the past, the held activists were not booked in false cases and were instead detained under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) Ordinance. Later, all of them, including Baqai, were released by the courts.
Knowledgeable sources say the establishment was fed up with constantly playing the role of a mediator to keep the nascent MQM-P merger from falling apart. According to these sources, the establishment has again made contact with the MQM-L leadership and reportedly offered it certain concessions if it is ready to endorse the MQM-P set-up.
However, the MQM-L wants complete political freedom, including permission to field its own candidates, as it is quite confident that Hussain-backed candidates, even if they are completely unknown to the people, can win the elections with a huge margin without the support of the establishment.
A source close to the MQM-L leadership and based outside of Pakistan says, “The Rangers or Sindh police are not part of the establishment. They act on its directives, but they are not policymakers. We have no issues with the establishment and all we want is our political freedom back.”
Currently, Hussain is weighing his options from his London abode. He is in regular touch with his supporters and sympathisers in the urban areas of Sindh. His loyalists are planning to file nomination papers as independent candidates from all across Sindh, without disclosing their allegiance. When the time is right, Hussain will announce their names as candidates of the ‘Wafa Parast [Loyal] Group.’
If they are not allowed to contest the elections, then the MQM founder may give a boycott call. He has also told his followers that, if this turns out to be the case, he shall extend his support to the candidates of the PTI. Whatever the case, his candidates contesting or his boycott call will hurt the MQM-P the most, as it would divide the Mohajir vote.
At a recent press conference, Kamal alleged that Hussain and the PPP had a tacit understanding and Hussain would boycott the elections only to facilitate the PPP. He was of the view that the Jamaat-i-Islami is also banking on the MQM-L boycott.
London-based MQM-L convener Mustafa Azizabadi vehemently denies the charge and terms it a baseless accusation, levelled by a party that itself managed to get its own leader of the opposition in the Sindh Assembly after striking a deal with the PPP.
He’s not wrong. A month before the Sindh Assembly was due to complete its tenure, the speaker of the Sindh Assembly, a PPP nominee, had notified the MQM-P’s Rana Ansar as the leader of the opposition, after removing PTI’s Haleem Adil Sheikh from the slot, to pave the way for a consensus caretaker chief minister (CM). Later, Justice (retd) Maqbool Baqar became the caretaker CM after the MQM-P agreed on his name.
An insider says PPP-Parliamentarians president Asif Zardari directly phoned MQM-P convener Dr Khalid Maqbool and convinced him to support Justice Baqar for the office of caretaker CM.
Besides, the MQM-P leadership has been accused by some of boycotting the local government polls earlier this year, only to facilitate the PPP which, for the first time in its history, managed to bring in its own mayor in Karachi.
Without naming Kamal or any other leader, Haroon, who worked with the MQM supremo Hussain in London for a long time, feels MQM-P’s criticism of the London leadership was unnecessary. “For some reason even the top [MQM-P] leadership couldn’t ignore the pressure of London. They have themselves to blame for continuing to acknowledge the ‘influence’, not just privately but in their public statements in rallies and their social media campaigns. Unnecessary concentration on non-issues and the verbal outbursts of the former MQM supremo and the continued confrontations didn’t help to further the PSP’s cause, nor has it proven beneficial for the merged MQM-P.”
Dr Nusrat also puts the blame for the sorry state of affairs more on internal rifts rather than Hussain’s influence. “At the moment, there is a severe deficit of trust between the voter and MQM’s leadership, every faction of MQM,” he says. “And that is the primary reason keeping the people out of the political activities, rallies and polling booths in urban Sindh.”
The writer is a member of staff
‘The real question should be about the future of urban Sindh’
— MQM-P convener Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui
What are the prospects of MQM-Pakistan in the next general elections? Will it emerge again as the single largest party of Karachi?
Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui: The future of the MQM should not be the question. The real question should be about the future of urban Sindh, which has suffered years of injustices and oppression. The Pakistan Peoples Party’s 15-year-long rule has become a nightmare for urban areas of Sindh. Today’s MQM is the only option after the failed experiment of imposing an artificial leadership with a fake mandate in urban areas of Sindh. The MQM is more focussed, stronger and active now and it is the only solution to the problems of urban Sindh.
Who is your real competitor in the Karachi elections – PPP, PTI or JI?
KMS: Jamaat-i-Islami has been trapped by the PPP in the local government elections and the municipalities of Karachi have become a Waterloo for it. The huge amount of money spent by the JI on its marketing has been wasted and now the people who were temporarily impressed by their marketing have become disappointed with the performance of its local representatives. This was bound to happen. As far as the future of the PTI is concerned…it will be known in the days to come.
Is there any formula agreed, between the pre-merger factions, to award party tickets for the next elections?
KMS: There is no faction of any kind in MQM, so there is no space for allocating any quota in the distribution of election tickets.
Mustafa Kamal keeps on insisting that Altaf Hussain’s election boycott call would benefit the PPP and JI. In other words, he admits that Mr Hussain still has a following in the urban areas and his boycott call would be effective. Is this correct?
KMS: In this regard, there is no direct threat to MQM-Pakistan from anyone, but there are certainly many concerns that the PPP is plotting to divide the mandate of Karachi. This can directly benefit the PPP. There are apprehensions of organised rigging in the elections by the PPP, but we have devised a plan to deal with all these concerns and possibilities.
Some quarters allege that the MQM-P — or some people within — is using connections with the security establishment to inform on Altaf Hussain’s sympathisers active in Karachi. What’s your response to these allegations?
KMS: We do not have any such information and there is no likelihood of this being true. These allegations also seem to be part of the propaganda made by our opponents.
Header image: Despite the challenges, many MQM-P leaders are hopeful that, with the blessing of the mighty establishment, their party can emerge as Karachi’s single largest party in the 2024 elections | AFP
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 10th, 2023