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Lessons from NA-246

Lessons from NA-246

TO regular followers of electoral politics in Pakistan, and specifically to those who keep an eye on affairs in Karachi, the NA-246 by-poll result seems fairly mundane. The only subsection of the public that appeared to have held different expectations were those who’ve recently converted to the church of political zealotry — ie PTI supporters. Now with the result clearly established, and with little room left to cry foul, there are some important lessons worth drawing from this particular exercise.

For people outside of Karachi, especially those in urban centres across Punjab, a thumping MQM victory in a heavily scrutinised, Rangers-managed election may induce cognitive dissonance. This is because many people, most of whom are earnest and have had no opportunity to know better, ascribe to a caricatured view of the MQM as a party that wins by coercing voters using intimidation, ethnic manipulation, and violence.

As is the case with most caricatures, there is a tangential element of truth to it. Violence in Karachi, as Laurent Gayer argues, creates and sustains a particular order, and is useful in retaining certain social and political hierarchies. But identity and, more importantly, hegemony are by definition consensual. One simply cannot force an individual to believe in an ethnic cause without there being some shared, ascriptive basis of affiliation.

The MQM, in this particular case, offers representation to a particular group in Pakistan. While one may argue against the social ills of ethnic mobilisation, or how it politically undermines the ‘national interest’, the freedom to identify, associate and seek representation cannot be denied in any functional democracy. In fact, it is the denial of the right of representation, and the consistent judgment passed on the choices made in Karachi, that contribute to ethnic mistrust and hostility.

People in Punjab vote along biradari, dhara, and caste lines knowing that the returns they get will be ordered along the same axes. For them this is soundly strategic and completely rational. It is quite surprising, therefore, that many refuse to extrapolate the same logic to other forms of mobilisation and patronage disbursement.

Secondly, there are many (both inside and outside Karachi) who — again perhaps out of sheer goodwill and earnest sentiment — seek a ‘final solution’ to the MQM’s militancy by any means necessary. For them, this election should serve as a reminder that bludgeoning a political reality through doctored confessions and early morning raids won’t make it go away. It may just embolden the conservative/hawkish elements within it, and will fortify a support base around the subsequent narrative of establishment victimisation. Militancy and criminality cannot and should not be tolerated, but a response to these ills has to be dictated by political acumen, not by clumsy force.

Thirdly, for a party that’s won in a hostile media environment, by securing over 70pc of the total votes cast, there may be few apparent lessons waiting to be drawn. However, the MQM currently faces two distinct challenges that may make their political fortunes less comfortable in the future — the first is the question of leadership succession and the second is the question of legitimacy.

With one noose or another tightening around several high-ranking members in the party, the MQM needs to have a plan in place if it wishes to avoid fragmentation and the accompanying violence that such a fragmentation may entail. Even though this is not an immediate requirement, planning ahead for it may be in the best interests of the party and, more importantly, of the people of Karachi.

On the legitimacy front, politics — like nature — abhors a vacuum. The MQM has won comfortably in an area where it is expected to win every single time. There are other areas in Karachi where the competition will be much more pronounced than the one put up by Imran Ismail. Hence, the party’s main challenge there would be to retain its character as a legitimate representative of people’s interests.

Finally, the PTI has emerged as a credible — albeit distant — second force in urban areas across the country. By the time this column gets printed, cantonment polls results will provide further evidence of the party’s entrenched character in cities like Lahore, Rawalpindi, and increasingly, Karachi. Their performance in this by-election — whilst by most objective standards — quite poor, it can still lay claim to the tag of the closest competitor MQM has on its home turf. Imran Ismail’s statements about achieving a moral victory by ‘entering Azizabad’ can either be seen as a poor attempt to salvage something out of an electoral drubbing, or an indication of the beginning of more routinised electoral competition in this part of the country.

At a sociological level, the PTI’s appeal to urban voters across the country — who consume similar kinds of media discourse and hold similar views on politics — makes perfect sense. There is a core middle-class constituency now present and shaping political rhetoric in many parts of the country, and despite Pakistan’s fledgling economic health, it will continue to grow over time.

What this means is that we’re witnessing the creation of a national vote block, under the PTI’s banner, that may not yet be enough to swing seats or win general elections, but is certainly busy consolidating and expanding its presence with each passing contest. The victories will be eked out through traditional politics, but there may yet be a future in which party identification alone will be enough to mobilise a winning number of voters. The party will and should find these trends to be quite encouraging. Being number one in some places, and number two in large parts of Punjab and in Karachi is a position others (such as the PPP) would love to be in.

The writer teaches political science at LUMS.

[email protected]

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2015

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