The South Asia Channel

MQM Adrift: Karachi’s Brewing Political War

The MQM is losing political clout, but what will come next for Karachi?

A supporter of Pakistan's Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party carries a party flag as he passes an armored police vehicle in Hyderabad, some 160 kms east of the southern port city of Karachi on June 3, 2014 following the arrest of Altaf Hussain, the head of Pakistan's Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party in London. The leader of Pakistan's MQM party, Altaf Hussain has been arrested in London on suspicion of money-laundering, reports said on June 3 as panic spread through his home city of Karachi and protesters torched vehicles. AFP PHOTO/YOUSUF NAGORI        (Photo credit should read YOUSUF NAGORI/AFP/Getty Images)
A supporter of Pakistan's Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party carries a party flag as he passes an armored police vehicle in Hyderabad, some 160 kms east of the southern port city of Karachi on June 3, 2014 following the arrest of Altaf Hussain, the head of Pakistan's Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party in London. The leader of Pakistan's MQM party, Altaf Hussain has been arrested in London on suspicion of money-laundering, reports said on June 3 as panic spread through his home city of Karachi and protesters torched vehicles. AFP PHOTO/YOUSUF NAGORI (Photo credit should read YOUSUF NAGORI/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in 1991, as a young reporter I asked Farooq Sattar, the central leader of the MQM, a direct question: Would the emerging political force of the urban Sindh (the MQM) be able to snatch the stolen water from tanker-mafia dedicated hydrants back into the household taps? Brimming with zeal, he assured reporters that water thieves and the local transport mafia would be stopped. Farooq and the MQM’s unfulfilled commitment would become a decisive factor in the politics of Pakistan’s southern Sindh province. Lately rivals have capitalized on the continued deprivation of MQM’s voters, even challenging its dominance in its traditional constituencies of Azizabad and other local electoral constituencies.

Issues of class overlaid with issues of ethnicity lie behind the brewing war taking expression both in political contest as well as in violence in the streets of Karachi, now bustling with nearly 20 million inhabitants. MQM began as a student political group on Karachi University campus in June 1978 as the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APMSO). It later moved to contest the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) political power in Sindh. Today, MQM is struggling to maintain its status as Pakistan’s third largest mainstream political party after the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML – Nawaz Sharif faction) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

While the MQM rode the slogans of ethnicity and rights, it consistently consolidated its vote bank in provincial urban centers, pushing the PPP to its stronghold in rural Sindh. MQM championed the rights of Urdu speaking migrants from India against the antagonism of radical Sindhi nationalist organizations. It adopted the ethnic identity of Urdu speakers as Mohajir (immigrants) and became the sole leader of communities that have inhabited urban Sindh centers since the creation of Pakistan and India in 1947. Against the backdrop of hostile Sindhi nationalist movements and the absence of a political platform for Urdu speakers, MQM received an overwhelming response to its political move.

MQM thrives on its intact vote bank in Karachi among low-income groups mainly inhabiting Landhi, Korangi, Orangi, Qasbah Colony Quaidabad, Lines Area, and certain pockets in Federal B. Area, Liaquatabad, Nazimabad and downtown Karachi in particular, who lack a better choice in pursuing their interests against Pashtun, Punjabi, Sindhi and Baloch ethnic groups in their vicinity. Urdu speakers are dependent on MQM and compelled to remain loyal. Cornered by the hostile ethnic political polarization, dependency strengthens the bond between MQM and its supporters.

MQM, for its part, has become dependent upon centralizing control over the party power, violence, and its alleged wide-scale militant wing. However, in spite of allegations of violence, MQM has earned respect for being the most disciplined and well-organized political party in Pakistan.

Despite the alleged fear that members of MQM’s base have of the party and its organization, MQM has held its place in the politics of urban Sindh, alongside other powers including the Taliban factions, banned sectarian organizations, and organized crime mafias.

However, there are signs that the times are changing. Stigmatized by MQM’s London based chief Altaf Hussain and his strict party “discipline,” the enlightened Urdu-speaking middle class of Karachi desires to disassociate itself from the party which has become synonymous with the name of its leader. The segment of the MQM vote most desirous of disassociation is dispersed throughout the affluent cosmopolitan areas of Defense, Clifton, KDA-I, Bahadurabad, PECHS, North Nazimabad, certain pockets in Gulshan-e-Iqbal and Nazimabad. The generation of the 1980s and 1990s that attended private universities simply did not vote for MQM as an electoral choice during the past decade. Their families have sought to disassociate with the bloodstained politics – a contrast with the early phase of MQM when association with the party was a symbol of socio-political empowerment. Although, MQM is still a record vote holder in Karachi’s electoral politics, a slight yet consistent downward trend is clear.

Altaf Hussain’s style of leadership and “party discipline” has pushed forward the question of whether MQM might continue without him at its head. The question became more significant when Hussain was charged by the Scotland Yard on various charges including money laundering and involvement in the murder of Imran Farooq, who was murdered in September 2010 outside his London home. Hussain is in self-exile in London since February 1992 and had acquired citizenship of the United Kingdom in 2002 further complicating his role as leader of the MQM.

In 2013, a significant shift in Karachi’s electoral vote pattern manifested itself when former cricket icon Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI or Justice Party) attempted to contest the MQM’s power in NA-246, a constituency housing MQM’s headquarters Nine-Zero. Khan threw down the gauntlet to challenge MQM in its stronghold amid fluctuating local sentiments.  Despite its accepted failure to win the election, PTI achieved what other political forces could not dare – it caused a dent in the aura of invincibility that surrounds the MQM’s urban Sindh politics.

Walking the dwindling tight rope of its political fortunes is harder than ever before for Altaf Hussain and the MQM. Whatever the MQM’s future and whether or not it moves forward without Hussain at its head, the situation raises alarm regarding the devastating internal security strife in Pakistan. The streets of Karachi are drifting towards embracing the bloody ethnic and sectarian battles of the 1990s as old political ties weaken. The city remains thirsty both for water and blood – life has never been easy for Karachites with or without MQM.

YOUSUF NAGORI/AFP/Getty Images

Syed Moazzam Hashmi is a strategic communication specialist and senior journalist currently based in Islamabad. He also served as Senior Political Advisor to the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi, Pakistan.

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