An earlier commentary in this column looked at the rise of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). While a debutant political party has made a substantial leap in the just concluded elections, the MQM, an established political party especially in urban Sindh witnessed a spectacular fall. Its presence today in Pakistan’s National Assembly and Sindh’s Provincial Assembly is the smallest ever since the MQM started taking part in the electoral politics. On the other hand, one could see a rise in the PTI, in those areas where the MQM has faltered.
Why did the MQM fail in urban Sindh, especially Karachi? Is the electoral decline of the MQM due to the rise of PTI and TLP in Karachi? Alternatively, does the MQM fall in Karachi highlight the new power dynamics in Pakistan’s largest city, and the electoral decline is only an expression of it?
More importantly, what does the electoral decline of MQM mean to Mohajir politics, and also Karachi’s delicate power balance?
MQM and the Electoral Math
In 2018 elections, the MQM has polled less than a million votes for the National Assembly, the lowest in the recent decades – slightly more than 700,000. The MMA and the debutant TLP have polled more than two million votes each for the National Assembly. Even the Grand Democratic Alliance in Sindh has polled more than a million votes. As a result of the above low votes in 2018 elections, the MQM could secure only six seats directly, and one reserved seat – making its total to seven seats in the National Assembly. On the number of votes polled, MQM is the seventh largest party in Pakistan today.
Compare it with 2013 elections. The MQM had polled close to 2.5 million votes, leading to 24 seats in the National Assembly, including the four reserved seats. The party was the fourth largest then, following PML-N, PTI and the PPP. In 2008 elections, the MQM got a similar number of votes for the National Assembly – around 2.5 million, resulting in 25 seats including the reserved ones. In 2008 also, the party was the fourth largest in the Parliament.
From 2008 to 2018, the fall for the MQM’s composition at the national level is significant. From 25 seats in 2008 to just seven in 2018, slightly more than one third. True the PTI and TLP has risen in Sindh, especially in Karachi; but the fall in MQM is rather due to its vote bank not opting out of the MQM, or simply not voting.
The electoral math for the MQM becomes worse in the Sindh provincial assembly. In 2018, the party has won 21 seats, including six reserved seats. The PPP has got 95, the PTI 30 and the GDA 15 (including the reserved seats) out of the total 168 seats. While the PPP and PTI has polled 3.8 and 1.4 million votes for the Sindh Assembly, the MQM has got around 750,000 plus, followed by MMA (610,000 plus) and the TLP (410,000 plus).
In 2013 elections, the MQM has polled more than 2.5 million votes leading won 51 seats in the Sindh provincial assembly, following PPP’s 91.
The numbers clearly indicate the electoral fall of the MQM – both for the National Assembly and the Sindh provincial assembly.
Beyond the Electoral Failure: Explaining the MQM Fall
The decline of MQM did not start with the July 2018 elections. Rather it is other way around. The party’s bad show in the elections for both the National and Provincial Assemblies are a result of MQM’s political implosion during the last few years.
Also, the failure of the MQM cannot be directly equated to the rise of the PTI (and/or the TLP) in Karachi. Rather, it appears that the MQM implosion in Karachi has provided space to the PTI. To make an analysis purely based on the elections, one needs more data. Unfortunately, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is yet to provide a detailed data. So, one cannot empirically prove at this stage whether the MQM voters have switched over to the others or not.
What is empirically available at this stage is limited, but it clearly indicates the decline of votes that the MQM has polled. Why?
First and foremost reason is Altaf Hussain. He committed the original sin in the MQM’s context, leading to its downfall. It all started almost two years ago in August 2016, with Altaf’s disastrous speech. On 22 August 2016, Altaf started the MQM’s downfall when he said: “Pakistan is cancer for entire world…Pakistan is headache for the entire world. Pakistan is the epicentre of terrorism for the entire world. Who says long live Pakistan...it’s down with Pakistan.”
Worse, he asked his party members to target the media, inciting violence. What transpired Altaf to make such a speech one would know; but everyone could see its fallouts.
It led the MQM to break up. The party leaders in Karachi could not defend Altaf Bhai, for what he said. While Altaf could make those statements from London, for the MQM leadership in Karachi, it was not a proposition that could be defended. The party broke, leading to the formation of MQM-Pakistan, with Farooq Sattar taking control of the party remains in Karachi.
Second reason for the decline of the MQM is the fall of Nine Zero, and a phrase used not just as an official address of the party’s headquarters. Instead, it is the organisation's edifice of the MQM and the sanctum sanctorum of the party in Karachi. The military forces were always wary of raiding Nine Zero. 2016 changed all that.
Nine Zero also refers to the hold of MQM over Karachi. Almost like the twin towers of the Lord of the Rings, or the Dark Tower of Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba. Depending on who views it, Nine Zero is a structure that needs to be either demolished or protected. The MQM lost the same in 2016.
When Nine Zero fell, all other subsidiary organisational units of the MQM that remained party’s pillars of strength, that could unite, mobilise and bring voters to the booth – also fell. Nine Zero is more than a postal address for the MQM. Though Farooq Sattar took over the remains of the MQM, he could not revive the glory of Nine Zero.
Third, perhaps, the Deep State was waiting for an opportunity to reduce Altaf’s influence over Karachi. It all started during Gen Raheel Sharif’s tenure. Cases were built against Altaf both in Pakistan and in the UK. A media campaign was launched against Altaf and MQM linking with India. There were murmurs of disappearances in Karachi by 2016 itself, perhaps forcing Altaf to make that fateful speech.
The Deep State moved in for the kill following that 22 August 2016 speech by Altaf. The local leaders of MQM did not have an option other than agreeing to the long-planned “Altaf Minus” formula for the party.
Fourth, linked to the third factor was the formation and the questionable rise of Pakistan Sarzameen Party (PSP). Much before the fateful speech of Altaf Hussain in March 2016, Syed Mustafa Kamal, a former MQM leader, minister and more importantly the MQM Mayor of Karachi had formed a new party. Many allege that Kamal, who had left the party and Pakistan (to Dubai) in 2013, returned in 2016 to announce the formation of the PSP.
For a short while, there was an effort to bring MQM-P and PSP together. By now, both Farooq Sattar and Mustafa Kamal agree that the Rangers played a role in bringing them together. The move could not succeed for various reasons.
As a result, if the MQM has failed in Karachi to win seats, the PSP failed miserably. It could not win a single seat. It could poll around 120,000 votes in total. The JuD supported Allah-o-Akbar – another r new party formed months before the elections had polled more (170,000 plus) votes than the PSP!
Finally, the failure of the MQM-P and Farooq Sattar in particular. Farooq Sattar should take full responsibility for the debacle. True, he broke up with Altaf Hussain; true, that a new party – the PSP came into being with blessings from the Deep State; also true, that there were pressures on second and third rung MQM leadership to abandon the party and join the PSP.
However, Farooq Sattar should have taken the party (or whatever was left off) along. There were enough warnings in March 2018 itself, when there was a Senate election in Parliament. The MQM could secure only one seat; whereas, it could have easily secured four or even five seats.
Sattar should have immediately started mobilising the MQM. Instead, he allowed the party to split into two factions. He could not rally the Rabita Committee of the party; in fact, Committee removed Farooq Sattar from the party in February 2018 for attempting to change the party’s constitution without informing it.
What followed was an MQM meltdown leading to an implosion. Instead of getting ready for the elections, Sattar allowed the internal differences to break the party.
Perhaps Farooq Sattar is no Altaf Hussain.
So what does this mean for the MQM?
Is it the end of the road for the party? It is too early to write off. The Mohajirs form one of the most robust backbones of Karachi’s society, economy and politics. Moreover, the MQM is their vital lifeline.
The ethnic mixture and the increasing radical footprints in Karachi would want a strong MQM as a liberal and secular balance to every day’s life.
Will the MQM bounce back?