There’s a whiff of change in the air. Opponents of Pakistan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government expect Prime Minister Khan to be overthrown soon. The regime was plagued by incompetence and a deteriorating economy. The whiff has sparked sudden activity among Karachi’s prominent political parties, who have begun appearing in large numbers to be seen. Local elections are also on the horizon.

Karachi, the capital of Sindh, the country’s largest metropolitan and commercial hub, is also Pakistan’s most ethnically diverse city. Urdu-speaking Mohajirs have been the majority community here since the 1950s, but their proportion is declining. From 54.34 percent of the city’s population in 1981, that proportion has fallen to 42.30 percent in 2017. The Pakhtuns are the fastest growing ethnic group in Karachi, outgrowing the majority Pakhtun province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

Punjabis are the third largest community, closely followed by Sindhis. Other communities are the Saraiki, Baloch, Hindko, Kashmiri, Gujarati, Hazara, Gilgiti, Bengali, Burmese and others. It is often said that if you walk even a mile on a road in Karachi, you can hear multiple languages.

Karachi is a port city. Port cities have a dynamic, impersonal and diverse social environment. But diversity can also produce complex political scenarios. Recently, predicting election results in Karachi has become a complicated endeavor.

Electoral trends in this mammoth city are in flux. Between 1988 and 2013, the city was easier to predict. It consistently sent back many Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) candidates, while the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was the city’s second largest electoral organization.

As local elections draw closer, Karachi appears to be back as much up for grabs as it was in 2018

In the 2013 elections, the PTI overtook the PPP to become the second largest party in Karachi. Then, during the 2018 election, the PTI became the city’s largest party, replacing the MQM — though the results have been questioned. The next general election in the city is expected to bring mixed results.

By 1988, the city was notorious for scattered results. In the 1970 elections, Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP), Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and PPP each won two seats. The 1977 elections produced similar results, although the JI and JUP were part of an anti-PPP alliance.

In the 1980s, the city became an epicenter of ethnic violence. Its infrastructure began to deteriorate due to the Gen Zia dictatorship’s neglect of Karachi. The communities of Mohajir and Pakhtun went to war over the city’s dwindling economic resources. The MQM emerged from the violence and won the 1988 elections.

With a combination of Mohajir nationalism, development work and militancy, MQM continued to win the most seats until 2013. This is despite the fact that it had to face two major security operations against its “militants” in the 1990s.

Hundreds died, but the operations failed to neutralize the MQM’s electoral dominance. But from 2008 the party began its slow decline. The Awami National Party (ANP) became popular among the city’s Pakhtuns, and the PPP maintained its electoral dominance in the Sindhi and Baloch enclaves of Karachi.

In 2009, a new (though unelected) player entered the fray in the form of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). As a militant Islamist group, it began mercilessly eliminating ANP, MQM and PPP cadres for ideological reasons during the city’s notorious turf wars.

After the 2008 elections, the PPP, MQM and ANP formed a coalition government in the center and in Sindh. But due to infighting, mismanagement and TTP attacks, ANP was nearly wiped out in Karachi, MQM appeared entirely at sea, and PPP struggled to hold its strongholds.

This is how PTI managed to get deep here in the 2013 elections. It has grabbed the bulk of the Pakhtun and Punjabi votes in Karachi and has also managed to attract a significant amount of Mohajir votes.

In 2015, MQM splintered into different factions. This really opened up Karachi’s many constituencies. During the contentious 2018 election, JI tried to revive its old Mohajir vote bank but was crushed by PTI and the radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP).

During these elections, PTI again received a large portion of Karachi’s Pakhtun and Punjabi votes. In addition, the MQM votes of the upper-middle and middle class were also gobbled up by PTI, while the important MQM votes of the lower-middle class were cast mostly in favor of TLP.

Karachi appears to be as open again as it was in 2018, if not more. The last by-election here (for NA-249), which was held in March 2021, is a case in point. NA-249 is one of the city’s largest constituencies, multi-ethnic but with a sizeable Pakhtun and Punjabi population.

NA-249 was won by PTI in 2018 but by the PPP, a party that has governed Sindh since 2008, in 2021. She’s clearly putting a lot more effort into winning voters in Karachi as well – particularly those who are clearly frustrated by PTI’s utter underperformance in the city.

On the other hand, JI is also trying once again to revive its historic voice bank among the Mohajirs. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is also gaining prominence (among non-Mohajir communities). At the moment, Karachi could have one of the largest undecided voters in the country. PPP, JI and PML-N will hunt all of these, as well as the lapsed PTI supporters.

Continue reading: Prolonged sit-in in Karachi brings Jamaat-i-Islami into the mainstream after years

I can’t see how PTI will be able to stem its waning appeal in the city. Additionally, his poor performance rubbed off on his allies as well. MQM-P is one of them. She suffered badly in the by-elections. MQM will have a hard time reviving. It will fight for crumbs.

The party may do better in local elections if its various factions can somehow reunite. But what do they offer voters? Today, more than ever before, Karachi’s electorate is demanding jobs, roads, water and electricity connections and sewage pipes. MQM has done precious little in this regard, even though it sits on the Treasury benches in Islamabad. The hackneyed slogan “Karachi Province” will not work.

What about TLP? She has no agenda other than fantasies of a cosmic war, she urges her followers to fight in the here and now for a place in heaven in the afterlife. The party can be a killjoy in some constituencies, but that’s about it.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 30, 2022

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