Army and media personnel outnumber voters at a polling station during a partial re-election in Karachi, Pakistan on May 19 (Reza Jan)

May 20, 2013

Karachi Violence Emblematic of Pakistan's Instability

Army and media personnel outnumber voters at a polling station during a partial re-election in Karachi, Pakistan on May 19 (Reza Jan). 

All is not well in the City of Lights, as Pakistan's major metropolis, Karachi, is known. The murder of a senior political party worker on May 18 underscores the unrest wracking the city in the wake of recent elections, and showcases the tendency of political disputes in the nation's financial center to be played out in a violent manner.

Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister-in-waiting, says he plans to prioritize setting the country's economy in order, but he will have a hard time doing so if Karachi, the country's financial engine, the source of nearly 60 percent of its revenue and home to a tenth of its 180 million-strong population, remains paralyzed due to politically-driven chaos.

Pakistan is going through a delicate transition following historic elections on May 11. At the center, power is transitioning from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) which traditionally hails from Sindh province, to the Punjab-based Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. In Karachi, however, the traditionally dominant Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party is responding to challenges to its authority from the upstart Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party with destabilizing levels of violence. It also continues to be plagued by high levels of Taliban violence and increasing militant infiltration.

Excitement, both inside and outside Pakistan, over the fact that the country managed to hold a reasonably free and somewhat peaceful election that brought about a change in government will quickly dissipate if a city as vital as Karachi continues to suffer violence and political infighting. Elections by themselves are no panacea, and Karachi will likely serve as a bellwether for the health of Pakistan's nascent democratic process.

Murder Most Foul

On the evening of May 18, Zahra Shahid Khan, a founding member of the PTI and the vice president of the PTI's women's chapter in Sindh province, was assassinated by three unknown individuals outside her house. PTI chairman Imran Khan (no relation) wasted no time in publicly laying responsibility for Ms. Khan's death at the door of the U.K.-based Altaf Hussain, leader of the MQM.

The attack took place on the eve of a partial re-vote in the NA-250 electoral district of Karachi after elections there on May 11 had been severely disrupted by vote rigging and voter intimidation in various forms. The MQM was heavily implicated in allegations of electoral malfeasance in NA-250, reportedly in an attempt to boost its prospects in a district where its candidate's chances of victory were far slimmer than elsewhere in the city.

Unrelenting Control

The MQM has a long history of ruling Karachi like a well-organized mafia. In neighborhoods under its control, the party takes responsibility for the provision of many goods and services, but expects unerring obedience in return. Extortion is widespread but, by now, accepted by residents as a normal cost of doing business. The MQM has fought to maintain and expand its control over neighborhoods in Karachi, particularly against the Awami National Party (ANP) which traditionally held sway in Pashtun-dominated neighborhoods of the city, and the PPP in the city's Lyari area. The parties regularly accuse each other of funding and supporting militant wings that target and assassinate the other’s workers and leaders.

In the run-up to Pakistan's recent national elections, however, the conflict in Karachi re-oriented to become one between the MQM, which was looking to maintain its stranglehold on Karachi's politics, and the PTI, which had emerged as the main challenger and expected victor in NA-250 and possibly other constituencies. Following the disrupted polling on May 11, PTI workers led large demonstrations across Karachi to protest vote rigging. On May 12, the MQM's mercurial leader, Altaf Hussain, who has steered the party in exile from London for the past 21 years, made an angry speech threatening PTI protestors to disperse on pain of violence. Hussain said, “I am about to set free my enraged followers if opposition against our party is not stopped.” Two people were wounded in firing on PTI demonstrators following Hussain's speech. So blatant were the accusations, in fact, that Britain's high commissioner to Pakistan took notice of the statements and said that British police would be investigating whether the statements constituted criminal incitement of hatred and violence. 

Diminished Enthusiasm

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) eventually conceded that major irregularities disrupted voting in parts of Karachi and announced a re-poll in parts of NA-250 on May 19. The MQM protested the decision, demanding that re-polling be conducted in all of NA-250 rather than in just 43 of the district’s 180 stations. The ECP rejected the demand, and the MQM on May 17 chose to announce a boycott of the re-poll entirely. The next day, Ms. Khan was killed.

Despite the fact that the army was out in large numbers on May 19 to secure polling stations for the re-election, the murder of Ms. Khan and fear of renewed violence on the day seems to have had a palpable effect on voter turnout. Whereas Pakistan witnessed a historic 60 percent turnout on May 11, with long lines and enthusiastic crowds, polling stations on May 19 were somber, empty places. Various estimates put turnout at anywhere between 20 and 40 percent, with security personnel outnumbering voters in some locations. The distance from the euphoria and significance of election day, also likely had an effect on turnout. The PTI's candidate for NA-250 (as well as those for the corresponding provincial assembly seats) won the district with a comfortable margin nonetheless, one that was likely widened due to the MQM boycott.

Volatile Metropolis

While the PTI is victorious in the district, and has secured itself representation among the otherwise MQM-dominated seats in Karachi, it does not seem as if the trouble in the city is ready to subside. Altaf Hussain and the MQM's leadership have expressed outrage at what they call Imran Khan's unsupported accusations against Hussain and the party. Khan, for his part, has called for large demonstrations to be held in Karachi and elsewhere against Ms. Khan's murder. Tensions seem to be reaching a fevered pitch, and emotionally riled up MQM supporters even attacked local MQM leaders after listening to an angry and tearful telephonic speech by Hussain in London who accused local leaders of not doing enough to defend his reputation from Khan.

Given that level of excitability, the fact that the PTI appears to be obstinately taking on the MQM on the issue of its member's death, and Karachi's history of seeing political disputes being played out in the streets by armed political partisans, it is very likely that there will be more instability and blood spilt in the coming days. The MQM has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to bring the city to a standstill when it calls for a general strike. The army, while out in force in some parts of Karachi for the re-poll, has traditionally been wary of getting itself entangled with the local brawls of Karachi's political parties.

Wherefore Governance?

Nawaz Sharif, in preparing to take power, is looking to mend fences with political rivals and bring various political actors on board. He is drawing up plans to tackle Pakistan's debilitating energy crisis and to right the country's badly flailing economy which he describes as the single most important step in extracting Pakistan from its current morass. Until the situation in Karachi is brought somewhat under control, however, talks of economic revival will remain only half-baked. As the nation's principal economic center, it cannot simply be ignored as a pocket of instability. Political infighting of the sort currently plaguing the city is likely to lead to further clashes, city-stopping strikes, further economic paralysis, and the flight of business and talent. Such instability will also provide further openings for militant groups to increase their control over pockets of the city. In Karachi, elections are finally complete, but proper governance has yet to begin. Sharif would do well to take special note.