PTI tries to fill an MQM-shaped hole

It will take more than Twitter to win Karachi, say observers

PTI tries to fill an MQM-shaped hole
KARACHI – The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) September 6 rally in Karachi was hastily organized to respond to Altaf Hussain’s anti-state speech. The event was titled “Pakistan Zindabad Rally” and scheduled on National Defence Day. And the PTI chief made it abundantly clear in his speech that he had rushed to address the people of Karachi to let them know “that [you] are not alone.”

But this time around, the numbers did not add up. Imran Khan was present, but the crowd was thin, conspicuously thin. Until a few years ago, the news of Khan turning up at a rally would automatically fill up large swathes of space just like that. Karachi was billed as one of the PTI’s emerging turfs. But something along the way went wrong. Terribly wrong.

In the run up to the 2013 General Elections, despite the absence of a political structure in the city to mobilize people on the ground, the PTI racked up enough votes to intimidate a heavyweight opponent such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Even in constituencies such as Azizabad and Federal B Area, which are considered the heartland of the MQM’s vote bank, the PTI gathered enough numbers to make Altaf Hussian sulk and throw tantrums at his workers.

But the PTI never really followed up on that electoral accomplishment. The party did not open offices or recruit workers at the scale that it should have. The election fever seemed like a one-time seasonal affair.

“Partly, it’s true that the PTI did not follow up on the successes of 2013 elections,” concedes Firdous Shamim Naqvi, the PTI’s new Karachi president. “But as you know after the elections, the PTI went on a national level protest to point out the various discrepancies in the electoral system, so we were on a mission to improve Pakistan’s democratic process.”

It was evident that the people of Karachi voted for Imran Khan, the former cricketer known for his swashbuckling lifestyle, and not any political party since PTI was hardly seen on the ground in the city.

It was their social media campaign that mobilized whatever vote the party managed to gather. But after the 2013 elections, the PTI did not win any by-elections and did poorly in the local government polls held in December last year.

The party won one national and three provincial assembly seats from Karachi in the last elections. One of its provincial lawmakers Syed Hafizuddin joined Pakistan Sar Zameen Party (PSP) led by former Karachi mayor Mustafa Kamal in April.

At time when the MQM’s local offices are being bulldozed and the party is politically mired in a historic crisis, the PTI has a window of opportunity to cash in on the confusion reigning in the city.

Naqvi says that was the reason the PTI chief flew in on Defence Day. He wanted to make plain PTI’s Karachi policy. “Letting the people of Karachi know that there exists an alternative party.”

Observers say, however, that in order to come out as a feasible alternative to the MQM, the PTI has to work beyond the realm of social media and get down on the ground and avoid negative politics, i.e. criticizing MQM or others.

“The people of Karachi trusted PTI with their vote,” says Amir Zia, a former editor of The News. “But to build a mandate, the party needs to come up with Karachi-specific programs. More than anything else, they need to establish a party structure in the city.”

Zia adds that the voters in Karachi need a plan. The PTI has to present a Karachi-centric manifesto e.g. local bodies system, police reform etc. Imran Khan should not expect Karachiites to be moved by their national politics because that does not happen in the city.

Haya Rizvi, a teacher, voted for PTI when one of the MQM’s ‘facilitators’ had tried to force her to vote for the MQM inside a polling booth in North Nazimabad on 11 May 2013. “It was an instant decision but now I regret it,” she says. Rizvi feels the PTI never came back to make its presence felt in the city. “They started those series of dharnas and I am not even sure what Imran Khan is up to. The PTI needs to learn a lot if it wants to do politics in Karachi,” she says, adding that they won’t vote for the party next time.

Naqvi admits that the local leadership of the party was not up to the mark when it came to mobilizing workers in the city. He conceded that the party was also plagued with internal leadership squabbles. But more than anything else, Naqvi cited the fear of the MQM’s militant wing as a more relevant factor for not coming out in the open since the general elections.

“There were only four or five of us PTI leaders in Karachi who spoke against the MQM on the electronic media,” he says. “The reason we chose social media and not the street is because we do not have a militant wing and we don’t believe in that kind of politics.”

However, the PTI now has a clear Karachi policy which is to focus on the grassroots level and pick electable faces from the among the people who stand out as political workers, adds Naqvi.

Ammar Shahbazi is a freelance journalist in Karachi @ammarshahbazi