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Muttahida at the crossroads

April 14, 2013

Supporters listen to telephonic speech of MQM chief Altaf Hussain. –File Photo

Despite almost three decades in the political arena, nationwide appeal has eluded the Muttahida Qaumi Movement while it has failed to shake off the ‘ethnic’ tag. Also, a reputation for strong-arm tactics still follows it.

Going into the 2013 polls, it seems the MQM is in a stagnant position, whereby it is in little danger of losing the number of seats it secured in the national and Sindh assemblies in the last elections, while there are slim chances of it bringing in a much larger haul this time around. The MQM seems comfortable with the assumption that its hold over urban Sindh is relatively secure.

The party remains centrally controlled — from London that is — with Altaf Hussain in charge. However, there were rumblings earlier this year when Ishratul Ibad, the Sindh governor, tendered his resignation after the MQM left the PPP-led coalition. The rumour mill had it that Altaf Hussain wanted Mr Ibad to resign, yet the governor, through deft manoeuvring, managed to retain the post he has held since 2002. Nine Zero, of course, termed such talk “malicious analyses”.

Before that, the political scene in Pakistan was shaken by Dr Imran Farooq’s murder in London in 2010. Long considered the original brains behind the MQM phenomenon, the party’s former convener was reportedly planning to pursue an independent political career.

The MQM enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the PPP — what some would describe as a marriage of convenience — which finally ended in a divorce with the Muttahida bidding the PPP adieu in February this year, after sharing almost five years in power.

Yet it was a stormy relationship, which began — after the MQM supported Yousuf Raza Gilani’s prime ministerial vote of confidence back in 2008 — with much fanfare. Asif Ali Zardari, then still only the PPP co-chairman and not president of the republic, made a memorable visit to Nine Zero in April 2008. It appeared that all was forgiven and forgotten. But perhaps not.

The MQM threatened to leave the coalition on several occasions over various issues, including fuel prices, rolling back of the local government system, imposition of reformed general sales tax and, what it claimed was the PPP’s support for the Lyari-based People’s Amn Committee.

The Supreme Court’s verdict in the Karachi violence suo motu case was a sobering moment for the party, as the apex court suggested the MQM, as well as other political players, were willing to use violence in order to dominate Karachi. The past five years saw plenty of violence; there were vicious turf wars between elements allied to the Muttahida and those apparently supporting the Awami National Party.

Yet a point came when the ANP and MQM were confronted by a common enemy in Karachi: the ‘Taliban’. The MQM had been crying itself hoarse over creeping ‘Talibanisation’ in the city, yet it was dismissed at the time as ethnic scaremongering. The party saw two of its provincial lawmakers (Raza Haider and Manzar Imam) apparently targeted by religious militants, while the ANP too saw itself systematically uprooted by the extremists from many parts of Karachi.

Ultimately, if the MQM can convince the electorate it is a multi-ethnic, progressive and non-violent force which seeks to empower the working and middle classes, its efforts to expand beyond urban Sindh may bear fruit. Yet much remains to be done on this front.