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It is quite likely that the three factions of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement — MQM-Pakistan, MQM-Haqiqi and Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) — will merge to re-establish the MQM as Karachi’s largest party.

Ever since its inception in the mid-1980s, the MQM enjoyed unprecedented electoral supremacy in Karachi. But over the last two years, and specifically from August 2016 onward, the party began to severely splinter.

Today there are four MQM splinter groups representing the Urdu-speaking (Mohajir) majority of Karachi. The first was MQM-Haqiqi which emerged in 1992. But Haqiqi has always been a tiny faction that had split from the main party after accusing it of ‘betraying Mohajir nationalism.’ It has only scant electoral influence.

The PSP was formed in early 2016 by the former mayor of Karachi, Mustafa Kamal, who had been a leading member of the MQM. Kamal was a popular mayor and his appeal cut across diverse ethnic groups residing in Karachi. However, in 2015 he developed differences with Altaf Hussain — the MQM founder and chief — and in March 2016 announced the launch of his own party.

MQM-Pakistan, which is the largest faction, emerged when the party’s top leadership in Karachi dislodged Altaf Hussain as party chief. They accused him of being “anti-Pakistan” and for “wrecking the lives of young Mohajirs” with his “reckless policies and statements.”

The fourth faction, the so-called MQM-London, is basically made up of Altaf loyalists, most of whom are stationed in London with the self-exiled leader. The name MQM-London was largely coined by MQM-Pakistan and the media to describe a faction which was backing Altaf’s increasingly belligerent (and, in many cases, “eccentric”) political views.

Laurent Gayer, a French academic and author of Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, and Dutch scholar Oskar Verkaaik, who wrote Migrants and Militants, undertook extensive field research on the MQM and maintain that Altaf’s power initially flowed from his erstwhile charisma and the way he utilised the ethnic ruptures in Karachi which had begun to develop during General Zia dictatorship (1977-88).

Both the authors then suggest that from the 1990s onward Altaf’s hold over the party was increasingly facilitated by his influence within the party’s alleged “militant wing”. It was thus a drastic act by the party’s leadership in Karachi to topple him in 2016. Such a move would have been almost impossible to make even a few years ago.

This extraordinary manoeuvre was largely enabled by the recent police and Sindh Rangers’ operation against criminal and terror groups in Karachi which, despite being controversial on various occasions, enjoyed the support of a large number of Karachiites.

According to the Rangers, even though the operation is mostly against religious terror outfits and criminal mafias, MQM’s so-called ‘militant wings’ too were taken to task. Along with Altaf’s increasing provocations against the operation, this finally created an opening for MQM’s leadership in Karachi to escape his hold without facing much untoward reaction from the loyalists.

When MQM-Pakistan was formed, many experts believed that Altaf was still popular among large sections of the party’s electorate. But the last two provincial assembly by-elections in Karachi, in PS-127 and PS-114, suggest that the revamped MQM lost just a fraction of its votes.

However, these elections were won by the PPP. It is this party which seems to have benefitted most by the crisis within the MQM. Alarm bells went off in MQM-Pakistan, especially when election monitors noted that a chunk of MQM votes in this constituency went to the PPP not because these were pro-Altaf votes — rather these votes were part of PPP’s electoral revival of sorts in the city mainly triggered by the more inclusive developmental policies of the new Sindh chief minister.

The PPP has been in power in Sindh for over nine years now, but its electoral influence in the province’s capital has been rapidly eroding. But things began to improve when PPP’s co-chairperson Bilawal Bhutto managed to convince his father Asif Zardari to let him replace the aged Qaim Ali Shah as Sindh CM with Murad Ali Shah in 2016.

Karachi has had a rather complex electoral history. Till the late 1970s, its Mohajir majority largely voted for two mainstream religious parties, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP). This is the curious bit about Karachi’s politics because Karachi was (and still is) the country’s most multicultural and worldly city.

I. H. Malik in his detailed 1997 paper on Mohajir politics explains this by suggesting that the Mohajirs were “socially liberal” but “politically conservative.” This was because they were not a consolidated ethnic group and saw most parties as being dominated by particular ethnic communities.

The MQM which was formed in 1984 began the project of organising the Mohajirs as a distinct ethnic group. It merged the community’s social liberalism with an imagined concept of Mohajir nationalism, thus cutting out JI and JUP from the new equation.

From 1988 onward, the MQM began to win big in Karachi. The PPP remained the city’s second-largest party, mostly banking on the city’s Sindhi and Baloch communities voting for it.

But as veteran journalist Mazhar Abbas recently pointed out on GeoNews, JI and JUP’s electoral prowess in Karachi began being tested even before the creation of the MQM. In the 1979 local bodies’ elections held under Gen Zia, it was the PPP-backed candidates who won a majority. Abbas recalled that the party’s bid to nominate a mayor was foiled when its candidate for the post was kidnapped. The dictatorship could not afford having a mayor from a party whose government it had toppled in 1977.

In 2013, Imran Khan’s centre-right PTI made a huge impact in Karachi by lavishly usurping PPP votes and also the votes of the city’s large Pakhtun community which had traditionally voted for Pakhtun nationalist outfits. The law and order situation in Karachi had drastically deteriorated during the PPP-MQM-ANP coalition government at the centre and in Sindh (2008-2013).

In 2013, many Mohajir votes too went to the PTI. The MQM became increasingly nervous, yanking itself away from the PPP and the ANP. But PTI’s mighty foray into Karachi’s electoral politics was short-lived. The PTI has badly lost all post-2013 by-elections in Karachi. Its brief rise was clearly a reactive anomaly.

Now more wary of PPP’s electoral revival in Karachi, the recent attempt by the three MQM factions to merge clearly signals their realisation that as separate factions they will not only manage to hand over Karachi to the PPP, but perhaps even give PTI a chance to rediscover its lost bearings in the chaotic metropolis.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 27th, 2017

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