When the underdog comes out on top

Obed Pasha decodes the PS-114 Karachi by-election results

When the underdog comes out on top
The surprising Pakistan Peoples Party victory in the PS-114 (Mehmoodabad, Akhtar Colony, Chanesar Goth) by-elections has completely redefined Karachi’s political landscape. If these results are any indication of what the 2018 elections might look like, they should be concerning for the Establishment and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Just a quick background: Pakistan Muslim League-N’s Irfanullah Marwat won this seat in the 2013 general elections with 37,130 votes against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Rauf Siddiqui’s 30,305 votes. The Election Tribunal, however, declared these results null and void in July 2014 based on evidence of rigging, and the Supreme Court upheld this decision in March this year. Sensing this decision, Marwat decided to quit the PML-N and joined the PPP as early as February this year—but was dissuaded by Aseefa and Bakhtawar Bhutto who tweeted against him.

The MQM would have rejoiced at this confusion only if it were not going through an existential crisis of its own. As Altaf Hussain remains alienated from the electoral process, his party is effectively divided between his own faction of the MQM, Farooq Sattar’s MQM-Pakistan, and Mustafa Kamal’s Paksarzameen Party. As the by-elections approached, Altaf Hussain decided to boycott the voting process and asked his supporters to stay at home on election day. MQM-Pakistan fielded its candidate Kamran Tessori, with the conspicuous support of Afaque Ahmed’s MQM-Haqiqi. If anyone suspected MQM-Pakistan was backed by the Establishment, this unlikely coalition with Haqiqi strengthened that concern.

In the run-up to these elections, pundits were divided between predicting a victory for MQM-Pakistan or the Marwat-backed PTI. Marwat was expected to transfer his considerable Pukhtoon and Christian vote-bank to the PTI candidate, and PTI’s government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province should have given the Pakhtun another reason to vote for Imran Khan’s candidate. MQM-Pakistan was a favourite for some because it has historically dominated this constituency, with Rauf Siddiqui winning the 2008 election with 22,940 votes. In the end, both predictions failed and PPP’s Saeed Ghani took this seat with 23,840 votes and MQM’s Kamran Tessori ended up as the runner-up with 18,106 votes. Ironically, PTI’s Najeeb Haroon could only gather 5,098 votes, even below PML-N’s 5,353 votes.

There are some certain and some ambiguous conclusions that can be drawn from these results. The first certain conclusion is that these results have proved that the PTI is now a non-entity in Karachi’s politics. Whatever traction the party may have gained in the city during the 2013 elections is now gone. It is indeed troubling that a party which claims to be the true representative of the people on social media fares next to nothing in the real world. Imran Khan was not able to attract the sizable Pukhtun vote-bank in this constituency, even with Marwat’s support, and it seems that Marwat’s followers decided to stay at home rather than vote for the PTI.

The second biggest loser of this election was Mustafa Kamal, who couldn’t contest the election, and did not form a coalition with MQM-Pakistan either. These elections have shown what he really is, a nobody in Karachi’s politics.

The third thing that is certain is that people are eager to participate in the democratic process. Even after Altaf Hussain’s appeal to boycott the elections, MQM-Pakistan managed to land second place with over 18,000 votes, which is impressive for a by-election. But that is where the good news ends for MQM-Pakistan, and we enter ambiguous territory. Compared with Rauf Siddiqui’s 30,000 plus votes in the 2013 general elections, the current vote-count is on the lower side. The question is, did the rest of MQM voters abstain due to a lack of interest in the by-election? Or did they heed Altaf Hussain’s call? This question can be answered once detailed results from the polling booth start emerging. If they reveal an exceptionally lower turnout from MQM-dominated neighborhoods, MQM-Pakistan should start preparing for a defeat in 2018 elections. A sizable chunk of MQM voters refusing to participate in elections would mean a victory for any formidable opponent. In an even worse-case scenario, Altaf Hussain might decide to field independent candidates who will most likely attract the bulk of MQM votes and MQM-Pakistan will be left hanging. If the Establishment is hoping MQM-Pakistan replaces MQM-Altaf, it might be disappointed.

Finally, let’s discuss wonder boy Saeed Ghani and his momentous victory. Ghani entered the field as the underdog, having the disadvantage of starting his electoral campaign late since Marwat was being considered the PPP’s candidate earlier in the race. The PPP also had the incumbency factor going against it, as it has been in power in Sindh for almost a decade. Add to this the poor reputation that the party suffers in Karachi, and there was no reason Saeed Ghani should have won the election—but he did. It is indeed curious how Saeed Ghani could get 20,000 more votes than the PPP’s dismal 3,827 votes in the 2013 elections. Being a resident of the area with firm roots in Chanesar Goth might have gone in his favor, but it is unlikely that he managed to win only with support from PPP’s core constituency in the area. Detailed booth-wise results should make it clear if he was able to attract a sizable number of Christian or Pukhtun votes, or if he was able to erode the MQM voter base. The even bigger question is whether he will be able to repeat this performance in the 2018 general election which is right around the corner.

While Ghani’s perplexing victory leaves a lot of questions unanswered, it makes one thing very clear: there is never a dull moment in Karachi’s politics.

Obed Pasha is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Cleveland State University. He can be reached at obedpasha@gmail.com. His twitter handle is @RamblingSufi.