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KARACHI: Voter mood threatens Sindh heavyweights

February 17, 2008

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KARACHI, Feb 16: In the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the ‘sympathy swing’ in favour of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) may wipe out the moorings of some of the big political names in Sindh who chose to identify themselves with the establishment. All indications suggest that in certain constituencies, the current wave of people’s power is cutting across the clan boundaries in a far more effective manner than even that witnessed in 1988, when Ms Bhutto was first ushered into power after years of General Ziaul Haq’s military rule.

In the politics of Sindh, the ‘Syed factor’ is of crucial importance. Political analysts believe that amongst the traditional heavyweights threatened in Sindh by the sympathy wave are the Shirazis of Thatta, Liaquat Jatoi in Dadu, the Soomros in Jacobabad and Ghinwa Bhutto, while even the Mahar-Jatoi rivalry in Shikarpur may go in favour of the PPP. Meanwhile in Moro-Naushero Feroze, which is considered a safe seat for the family of Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, all is not plain sailing for the Jatois.

The swing is more pronounced in northern Sindh, the PPP’s heartland, as well as the southern areas of the province. The main contenders for this part of the country are the PPP and various clan and tribe leaders who generally contest as independents and later align themselves with one party or the other. Here, the PPP won four out of five seats from 1988 to 1997. In 2002, however, it performed badly not only because of its own failings but also because of the presence of the National Alliance which later merged with the PML-Q. The ruling party may now find itself handicapped by the fact that as a result of that merger, the National Alliance no longer exists.

Ghinwa Bhutto, contesting for NA-204 (Larkana-I) against PPP candidate Shahid Bhutto (a cousin of the late Benazir and Mir Murtaza Bhutto) may find it difficult to enter parliament even though Benazir Bhutto had, in her own lifetime, withdrawn her papers against Ghinwa. The latter’s support for the Unnars has proved counter-productive and left her shorn of the loyalty of poor pro-Bhutto supporters. NA-204 comprises Larkana city taluka, rural Larkana and some parts of taluka Miru Khan in which the Soomro, Abro, Kalhoro and Shaikh communities are in the majority. The 20,000 to 22,000 votes cast by the Shaikh community are expected to play a decisive role: experts note that 90 per cent of these votes have historically gone in favour of the PPP in every election. A measure of the contest can be gauged by the fact that in 2002, PPP nominee Mohammed Anwar Bhutto clinched the lower house seat with 46,743 votes while his closest rival, Pir Shah Syed of the PML-Q, obtained 11,062 votes.

On PS-35 (Larkana-I), a close contest is expected between Altaf Hussain Unnar of the PML-Q and Ghulam Sarwar Siyal of the PPP. The seat is considered an Unnar stronghold and in 2002, Altaf Hussain Unnar won by bagging 24,167 votes against PPP candidate Ghulam Sarwar Siyal, who obtained 19,072 votes.

Larkana-II, however, is another matter. On PS-36, Nisar Ahmed Khuhro of the PPP is expected to wipe out the government-backed Babu Sarwar Siyal of the PML-Q and Javed Mithani of the MQM.

For the national assembly seat of Larkana-II (NA-205), meanwhile, an excitingly close contest is expected between Altaf Hussain Unnar of the PML-Q and Nazeer Bughio of the PPP. This seat was captured in 2002 by Hizbullah Bughio of the PPPP.

Rivalries to benefit PPP

Another surprise appears to be in store for NA-208 (Jacobabad-I), where the Soomros are contesting not only against each other but also against the PPP’s Ejaz Jakhrani. The former speaker of the National Assembly, PML-N candidate Ilahi Bux Soomro, is challenged by his Lahore-based grandson Fahad Malik, the son of caretaker prime minister Mohamedmian Soomro’s sister Maliha Malik. Her mother Saeeda Malik was earlier elected district nazim, thanks to the support of the Jakhranis. And while Ilahi Bux Soomro was once in the better position with the support of the Shelani and Khoso tribes, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto has eroded that advantage since they have all rallied around the PPP candidate. Sources say that the government would have to resort to ruthless means indeed to manipulate the elections here.

In Shikarpur, the rivalry between the Jatois and the Mahars could benefit the PPP candidates, particularly now that the Shikarpur Alliance has become defunct and its stalwarts are distancing themselves from the PML-Q in order to retain their hold and keep themselves politically relevant.

The Jatois of Naushero Firoz-I (NA-211) are also feeling the heat in terms of the swing in the PPP’s favour. It is possible that the NPP’s Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi may find himself short of the number of votes required to win against Zulfiqar Behan, despite the fact that the latter is not as strong a candidate as his father Rahmatullah Behan, who defeated Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi in 1998. In some pockets, the Jatoi-Pagara tussle may also prove helpful for the PPP.

A close run is expected in NA-216 (Khairpur-II) where Pir Pagara’s son Syed Sadruddin Shah is running against the PPP’s Sajid Ali Bhambhan. Reportedly, Shah’s supporters are using strong-arm tactics to keep the opposition at bay and to deter PPP supporters from coming to the polling stations on Feb 18. There is little doubt that the contest will be violent and bitter.

The sympathy vote may also overturn the fortune of the PML-Q’s Syed Qurban Ali Shah in NA-227 (Mirpur Khas-II), where he is pitted against Mir Munawar Talpur, the brother-in-law of Asif Ali Zardari. Qurban Ali Shah was in the PPP before he jumped ship to join the PML-Q after being denied a PPP party ticket.

In Dadu, similarly, another PML-Q icon may fall despite the massive support being offered by government machinery. Former federal minister for water and power, Liaquat Ali Jatoi, is the PML-Q candidate from NA-232 (Dadu-II); the PPP has fielded Rafique Jamali, who won this seat by a margin of 15,000 votes in the 2002 elections. Jatoi was elected from the neighbouring NA-233 (Dadu-III) constituency in those elections.

However, following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, considerable anger was shown against him and some of his property was even set on fire. In the upcoming elections, NA-233 is being contested by his younger brother Ehsan Jatoi, also of the PML-Q, who is being challenged by the PPP’s Talat Iqbal Mahesar.

Therefore, a tough one-on-one contest is likely over NA-233 (Dadu-III) where both sides will engage in a fierce electoral battle to retain the seat.

In the south of the province, meanwhile, the Shirazis were already on the run, challenged by the Malkanis now in the PPP fold.

Given this situation, if anything at all is certain about Monday’s elections, it is this: the 2008 polls will not only have a far-reaching impact on the country’s polity and political map but will also alter the constellation of power brokers at all levels.