In A Flux: Exploring The Emotions Of Karachi’s Complex Electoral Politics

In A Flux: Exploring The Emotions Of Karachi’s Complex Electoral Politics
According to the political scientists Michael Bruter and Sarah Harrison, the psychology of voters has remained mysterious and perplexing for over two centuries (Bruter/Harrison, Inside the Mind of a Voter, 2020). There have been numerous sociological and economic models to understand electoral behaviour, including the widespread and ubiquitous usage of surveys. Yet, political scientists such as Bruter and Harrison have pushed to understand voter behaviour through what is often referred to as ‘electoral psychology.’

To the late American psychologist and philosopher John Dewey, ‘well over 90 percent of human behaviour is subconscious’ (J. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, Reprint 2007). Factors such as a voter’s personality, emotions, memory and identity are often hidden from researchers using economic and sociological models (Bruter/Harrison, ibid). A lot gets missed and/or never comes to the surface when researchers or surveyors apply the aforementioned models to determine or even predict voting behaviours. Here is when electoral psychology steps in.

The voting behaviour of the people of Karachi is perhaps the most perplexing. One has seen analysts who are not residents of this city, struggle to comprehend the politics of this city. Their analysis often slides into superficiality, engulfed by certain cliches that mostly began to develop from the 1980s onwards when ethnic violence in Karachi became an uncomfortable norm. But even analysts who reside in Karachi, often struggle as well.

Karachi is a port city, situated along a coastal belt of about 100 km in length. It is referred to as ‘the economic hub of Pakistan.’ It is also the country’s largest city and the provincial capital of Sindh. Physically it is still expanding, spread across an area of 3,780 km/1,460 sq miles. It has a population of over 20 million. It is also the country’s most ethnically diverse city.

According to the 2017 national census report, 42.3 percent of the city’s population constitute Urdu-speaking Mohajirs (who migrated to Pakistan from various Indian cities and towns after Pakistan came into being as a Muslim-majority country in 1947). 15 percent of the city’s population is Pashtun. They began to migrate to Karachi from Pashtun-majority regions in the north-western areas of Pakistan during the ‘industrial boom’ of the 1960s, one of whose epicentres was Karachi. Punjabis are the third largest ethnic group here (10.7 percent) closely followed by Sindhis (10.6). Then there are the Saraiki (4.9) and Baloch (4.4).

Apart from these, there are large concentrations of Afghans, Bengalis and Burmese living here, most of who arrived as migrants from the 1980s onwards. Approximately 95 percent of Karachi’s population is Muslim, mostly Sunni. 2.4 percent are Christian and 1 percent is Hindu. There is also a small Zoroastrian community. Approximately 20 to 25 percent of the city’s population is Shi’a.

There is no study on the breakup of Karachi’s Sunni sub-sectarian groups, even though most observers agree that the largest Sunni sub-sect in the city is Barelvi, followed by the Deobandi. One can also argue that the city may also have the largest number of Muslims in the country who do not overtly identify with any Sunni sub-sect.

Like most port cities, Karachi’s culture too has a distinct cosmopolitan dimension. Port cities are localised hubs defined by their global connections and heterogeneous networks. Their cultural contours are characterised by ‘superdiversity’ (Paul van de Laar/Arie van der Schoor in Coming to Terms with Superdiversity, 2019).
MQM’s nationalism had a militant dimension. This is all that the media focused on. Yet, the fact is: large areas of the city where MQM was the dominant party, did witness the completion of some impressive developmental projects

The ‘superdiversity’ of port cities such as Karachi is spread across a large area. Many portions of this area contain dense concentrations of people. The diversity can cut both ways. Interaction between its various ethnic groups has often resulted in exchange of ideas and cultures that has shaped a loosely unified economic and social culture/mindset which can only be found in Karachi. It is important for a newcomer to quickly comprehend this culture if he or she is to successfully survive the hectic pace of the city and the heterogenous make-up of its population. This can have a disorienting impact on those coming here from more homogenous societies.

Due to the social and economic interaction between distinct social groups, port cities are often known for being open-minded. Yet, the interaction can also result in tensions and even violence, especially if one group suspects that the other is trying to usurp and undermine the former’s economic and political interests.

Tensions between ethnic groups in Karachi are largely triggered by such suspicions. Politicians exploit this. But due to delimitation processes which began in earnest in the 2000s, many constituencies in Karachi are now multi-ethnic. Playing the ‘ethnic card’ has thus become difficult and the rhetoric of electoral contestants now concentrates more on issues such as jobs, law and order, sewerage and water lines, roads, electricity connections, etc – pure constituency politics.

This is not to suggest that constituency politics is missing outside Karachi. Not at all. But one can claim that it is at its strongest (at the moment) in Karachi. However, this isn’t the reason why most analysts struggle to comprehend Karachi’s electoral politics. And as I mentioned earlier, even analysts and reporters based in Karachi, also get a lot of it wrong. It’s the size of the city. Recently I studied the footage and press reports of the media coverage of six National Assembly seats in Karachi during the 2013 elections.

I compared these with the discussions that I had with three MQMP and three PPP workers operating in the constituencies during that election. Reporters who were residents of a constituency were spot on in their analysis and even in their predictions. But the same reporters were way off the mark in their analysis of constituencies that were at a distance from where they lived.

A person such as the TV journalist Sohail Warraich can provide some excellent and accurate analysis of the electoral politics of central and northern Punjab; and there are Sindhi journalists that I know who can do the same for almost each and every constituency in Sindh outside of Karachi. But I have yet to come across an analyst who convincingly comprehends the electoral behaviour and politics of Karachi’s 21 NA seats.

However, the political workers that I spoke to were a lot more accurate in predicting voter behaviour and election results. For example, an MQMP worker (which in 2013 was still intact as MQM) based in a constituency in Karachi East, told me that PTI will replace the PPP as the city’s second largest party. He gave me a rundown of how this will happen by providing information on the manner in which the voters of other constituencies were formulating their electoral choices. His reading of the situation was correctly reflected in the results.

Party workers, no matter in which constituency they are based, often have more informed assumptions about the city’s electoral trends than the reporters. I will also go to the extent of saying that the reporters in this context are not able to shrug off their own political and ethnic biases when covering an election outside the constituency they reside in. This is something very Karachi-like. In the 1990s, when I was a working journalist, I saw this a lot in the newsrooms.

Once, just before the 1993 elections, a ‘senior reporter’ who had sympathies for Jamat-e-Islami (JI) filed a report that JI was set to ‘sweep’ Karachi. It didn’t. It was routed. Then there was another senior reporter from Karachi Central who reported that the PPP would lose its safe seat in Lyari (Karachi South). It didn’t. Its opponent was trounced by over 20,000 votes.

There was also a pro-MQM reporter who saw MQM sweeping the 1993 election. MQM didn’t, because it boycotted the NA elections. The reporter didn’t have that information! Then, during the 1997 election, a reporter who never hid his liking for the Sipah Sahaba (SSP) filed a report stating the the party will give tough contest to MQM and PPP in certain constituencies. It didn’t. SSP’s vote bank was next to none in Karachi. Thankfully his report was not published. The editor looked at it, and then, after looking at the reporter, said, “billi ke khwab mien chichare” (cat dreaming of meat).
Due to delimitation processes which began in earnest in the 2000s, many constituencies in Karachi are now multi-ethnic. Playing the ‘ethnic card’ has thus become difficult and the rhetoric of electoral contestants now concentrates more on issues such as jobs, law and order, sewerage and water lines, roads, electricity connections, etc – pure constituency politics

Recently, media reports for the NA-240 by-election which largely constitutes Karachi’s congested Landhi area, were at best vague. Even though voter turnout during by-elections is traditionally low in Pakistan, it was just 8.39 percent in the NA-240 by-polls. None of the reports filed before the election even hinted at this. But a PPP worker from Landhi told me it would be between 10 and 15 percent. He knew better.

Landhi has been an MQM stronghold since 1988, because it has a Mohajir majority. Most of NA-240’s residents belong to lower-middle-and-working-class segments. However, when MQM broke into three factions in 2016, the party has struggled to maintain its electoral dominance in the city. The creation of multi-ethnic constituencies hasn’t helped either. The Landhi by-poll was won by the party’s largest faction MQMP by just 65 votes. The second largest vote-getter here was the far-right Barelvi outfit, the TLP. More on this latter.

Just before a 2021 by-election in Karachi (NA-249), held in April last year, the website of a large news channel published the results of surveys conducted by various research organisations, including Gallup-Pakistan and Ipsos Group S.A. Almost all the surveys placed Imran Khan’s PTI at the top, more-than-alluding that the NA-249 by-election will see PTI retain its seat here that it had first won in 2018.

Most Karachi-based journalists more-or-less agreed, except the workers of PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN in NA249. Their workers in this constituency insisted that the people of the constituency were in no mood to see another PTI MNA because the one who had vacated the seat (Faisal Vawda) ‘had done nothing for his constituents.’ When I shared this with a reporter associated with a large Urdu daily, he told me that the surveys were accurate. It turned out that he had aided the research groups and so had a couple of other Karachi-based journalists. None of them, however, were from NA249. The result: The PPP won the election, closely followed by PMLN. PTI came fifth.


MQM’s Karachi: Rise and Decline

Karachi’s electoral landscape has been fragmenting. I would argue that it has gone back to being like it was between 1970 and 1988. During the country’s first major parliamentary election in 1970, Karachi had 7 NA seats. Two each were won by PPP, the Jamat Islami (JI), and Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP). One was bagged by an independent. The PPP won in constituencies that did not have Mohajir majorities. The constituency with Mohajir majorities went to JI and JUP. A January 1971 report on Karachi polls published in the now defunct Leader newspaper made a rather interesting observation. It stated that, even though the Urdu-speaking majority of Karachi were ‘socially liberal,’ and that it was because of them that Karachi was a ‘liberal city,’ the Urdu-speakers chose to become ‘politically conservative.’

After Pakistan’s founding party the Muslim League fractured into numerous factions, the Mohajirs turned towards mainstream Islamist outfits. This was because the Mohajirs started to see all other political parties as ethnic entities that were led and supported by ‘the people of the soil.’ The Mohajir were immigrants. They weren’t people of the soil. So, despite being socially liberal, they chose Islamist parties to protect their political interests because, supposedly, these parties eschewed politics of regionalism.

A majority of newspaper reports before the 1987 local bodies elections in Karachi predicted a clean sweep by the JI. This, despite the fact that the deadly Pashtun-Mohajir clashes in 1985 and again in 1986, saw a sudden surge in the popularity of Altaf Hussain’s MQM.

MQM was formed in 1984 and had begun to describe itself as a Mohajir nationalist party. It was staunchly against JI. Even though Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhi nationalisms had leaned left, Mohajir nationalism placed itself as a secular party but one that encouraged Mohajirs to invest their energies in strengthening their economic condition through free enterprise. This has its roots in the little known fact that the MQM did not only emerge from All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO), but also from an outfit called Maha Sindh. The organisation was set up to protect the economic interests of Karachi’s Memon, Sindhi and Mohajir businessmen and traders, but largely became a Mohajir business interest group (A. Chandio/M. Ahmad/F. Naseem in Berkeley Journal of Social Sciences, 2011).

Altaf Hussain, 1987

Contrary to what ‘experts’ of Karachi politics had predicted, MQM swept the 1987 local bodies election, and then the 1988 election in Karachi. Thus began its electoral dominance of the city that lasted for two decades. The PPP remained to be the city’s second largest party, followed by the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP). From 2013 onwards, MQM’s electoral spell began to weaken.

MQM’s nationalism had a militant dimension. This is all that the media focused on. Yet, the fact is: large areas of the city where MQM was the dominant party, did witness the completion of some impressive developmental projects. Apart from this, MQM workers were always at hand to resolve economic, political and social issues faced by their constituents. Indeed, the militant arm of the party would brawl against other ethnic groups, it also did not spare ‘insubordination’ within the party and among its support base.

But this cannot be stated as a major reason behind MQM’s decline. Because had this been the case, the party would have been over in the 1990s when there were two concentrated operations against it by the state. Also, there was vicious street fighting between MQM and an armed faction that broke away in 1992, calling itself MQM-Haqqiqi. Hundreds were killed and thousands arrested. But MQM kept winning big. The Mohajir continued to see the MQM as a bulwark against ethnic groups who they feared were usurping Mohajir jobs and undermining the Mohajir majority.

After the 2002 election, the state during the General Musharraf dictatorship (1999-2008) decided to end action against MQM in return for the party’s support. Musharraf was a Mohajir. MQM swept the 2005 local bodies elections and was sufficiently funded by the regime to restore normalcy in Karachi. This is when the party truly peaked. Its mayor launched some massive developmental projects and the party leadership curbed its militant tendencies.
The anxiety of losing a political identity framed by an ethnic-nationalist party that was fracturing, pushed many once partisan MQM voters to vote for PTI as a more ‘national’ middle-class alternative

This is why MQM won big during the 2008 election, even though it had been a partner of the Musharraf regime. The regime had been sliding into chaos from 2007 onwards. The overall election were won by anti-Musharraf parties. The PPP formed governments in Islamabad and in Sindh. It decided to invite MQM to join its coalition.

Musharraf’s economic policies had produced growth between 2003 and 2006. But the economy had begun to crumble during Musharraf’s last years in power. The economy was clearly struggling when the PPP came to power. There were no big funds anymore for Karachi. This left MQM feeling frustrated and fearing the erosion of its support. Ethnic cleavages came to the surface again. But this time they were compounded by gang warfare in Lyari (a Baloch-majority area) and the entry of clandestine Islamist outfits such as the TTP which became a competitor in the ‘business’ of kidnapping for ransom, extortion, land grabbing and street crime. It also began to physically eliminate ‘competition’ by assassinating second and third tire leaders from MQM, PPP and ANP.


The Flux

Karachi’s electrical landscape began to change from 2013 onwards. The change is still not complete. It is still evolving. I will explore this through the electoral psychology modal to understand the perplexing mutations taking place in the city’s electoral behaviour.

During the 2018 election, Karachi was allotted 21 NA seats. Out of these, 14 were won by PTI, 4 by MQMP, and 3 by PPP. A survey of media reports just before election day rightly predicted that MQMP that had fractured in 2016 would struggle to retain the 17 NA seats that it won in 2013. That year, PTI had risen to become the city’s second largest vote-getter, replacing the PPP. But most reports expected MQMP to win at leat 10 seats. When I talked to a senior MQMP leader, he confessed that winning even 10 seats would be a great achievement. Because remember, MQM had split into three factions: MQMP (the largest faction), Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) and the so-called MQM-London.

There was already an MQM-H formed in 1992. So-called MQM-London is headed by former MQM chief Altaf Hussain. It’s not an electoral party. Yet, Hussain, who has been living in exile in London since 1992, is still popular among lower-and-working-class Mohajirs. He asked his supporters to boycott the election. He did so to hurt MQMP being led by his former lieutenants who had ousted him. This may explain why compared to 55 percent turnout during 2013 elections, Karachi’s turnout fell to 40 percent in 2018 (The News, 31 July 2018).

MQM had a large base of ‘partisan voters,’ or loyalist voters who are always expected to vote for a party because they closely associate their political self with the party, or the party was instrumental in formulating that ‘self.’ I believe a lot of MQM’s partisan voters did not venture out to vote in 2018. They were disoriented by the fragmentation that the party witnessed in 2016. They could not decide which MQM faction contained the elements that had helped form their political self. There were also many among these who were disconcerted by Altaf’s ouster. They weren’t sure what any of the factions stood for anymore.

Bruter and Harrison do not describe partisan voters as blind voters. They see this voter as both rationally and emotionally attached to a party. Yet, according to Bruter and Harrison, this does not mean a partisan voter is unable to vote for another party. In the 1980s, a large number of liberal Democratic Party voters in the US switched to voting for the conservative Republican Party candidate Ronald Reagan. The switch was due to an empirical experience and the emotional response to this experience.

The presidency of the Democrat Jimmy Carter (1976-81) saw unprecedented rise in interest rates (to curb inflation) and the setting in of a deep economic recession. Then there was a tense stand-off with the newly installed Islamist government in Iran when Iranian radicals backed by the Islamist regime took dozens of American staff hostage inside the US embassy in Tehran. A US military operation to evict the hostages went horribly wrong.

These were the empirical experiences which created anxiety in the polity. Anxiety pushes voters to be more mindful of who or which party they are voting for (G. Marcus/M. MacKuen in American Political Science Review, 1993). Liberals voting for Reagan was not just a knee-jerk reaction. It was a well-thought-out decision that saw Reagan’s promises of fixing the economy and hardening the country’s stance on crime as a much-needed course correction.

So, one can thus suggest that not all partisan MQM voters stayed at home. Many did come out to vote. But a lot of these votes went to PTI that had positioned itself as a party of the middle-classes. Maybe after decades of being defined by Mohajir nationalism, middle-class Mohajirs were looking to identify with a ‘national’ party, after the manner in which MQM had disintegrated, threatening intraparty violence and the return of ethnic violence. The anxiety of losing a political identity framed by an ethnic-nationalist party that was fracturing, pushed many once partisan MQM voters to vote for PTI as a more ‘national’ middle-class alternative.

Mohajir youth from this class were brought up on the received memory of the ‘fun’ of/at colourful MQM gatherings in the late 1980s. PTI rallies mirrored these. Also, Mohajir youth who had no empirical experience of the violence that engulfed the Mohajir community in the 1990s, yearned to be accepted as part of the national middle-class.
In the Malir constituency which PTI won, the party benefited from the area’s Mohajir votes that used to be cast for MQM. Secondly, the Punjabi and Pashtun votes in this constituency were split between PTI, PPP and PML-N, aiding the PTI candidate to sneak past his main PPP opponent by 1,468 votes

PTI in Karachi also received bulk of the votes cast by first-time voters, both young and otherwise. First-time voters exhibit a sense of enthusiasm, excitement and being part of a collective (Bruter/Harrison, ibid). On polling day during the 2018 election, my constituency was NA-247. It is a large, multiethnic constituency which has high-, middle- and low-income areas almost in equal measure.

PTI supporters in Karachi, 2018

Ever since 1970, it has produced mixed results. It has returned JI, PPP and PML-N candidates, before MQM managed to win it on a few occasions, but just. In 2013 and 2018, it was won by PTI. I remember its polling stations in high- and middle-income areas swarming with men and women, many of who were first-time voters. A majority of them voted for PTI. A middle-aged couple and their son were standing in the line just ahead of my wife and me. There was a great buzz. It seemed as if one was part of a cheerful gathering at a social club. Many of the voters were openly announcing that they were there to vote for PTI, because the party will end ‘corrupt’ politics.

The lady in front of us noticed that my wife and I were not so vocal. So, she asked my wife, “Isn’t it exciting? Finally, we will get a government we can call our own.” My wife just smiled back. She didn’t have the heart to tell her that we were not there to vote for PTI. As the lady’s husband and she went on and on about a coming revolution, and my poor wife kept on nodding her head, I couldn’t help but say, “We are actually here to vote for the PPP.” And that was it. The talk ended right there. We had become outcasts in this one big happy collective.

So, the two central emotions that played a role in Mohajir shift from MQM to PTI were anxiety and enthusiasm. PTI also benefited from an electoral shift witnessed in the city’s Pashtun and Punjabi voters. Karachi’s Punjabi and Pashtun communities are not partisan voters. Over the years these communities have either voted for Punjabi Pakhtun Ittihad (PPI), ANP or the MMA. By most accounts, a bulk of their votes went to PTI in 2018. They saw in Imran Khan a Punjabi-speaking ‘Pathan’ from Mianwali. Anxiety is often the emotion that drives their voting patterns. Empirical experience of ethnic riots and suspicion towards MQM’s once indomitable muscle, make them vote for candidates strong enough to protect their interests (from MQM) in constituencies where they are in majority.

Two out of the three NA seats in Malir were won by the PPP. It came second on the one seat which PTI managed to win. So only one constituency in Malir switched to vote for PTI here, whereas the two won by PPP stuck to partisan voting. In the Malir constituency which PTI won, the party benefited from the area’s Mohajir votes that used to be cast for MQM. Secondly, the Punjabi and Pashtun votes in this constituency were split between PTI, PPP and PML-N, aiding the PTI candidate to sneak past his main PPP opponent by 1,468 votes.

The most striking result emerged in Lyari. The largely working-class area with a Baloch majority and a prominent Kutchi-Memon community, was an electoral bastion of the PPP till 2013. In its lone NA seat, PTI defeated a formidable PPP candidate. Now in this case, anger, more than anxiety or enthusiasm, played a role. Anger and anxiety are often subjects of study by political psychologists. But as we have seen, whereas anxiety can actually lead a voter to gather more information on candidates and thus make a relatively more rational decision (G. Marcus/M. MacKuen, ibid), anger can also have the opposite effect.

Anger triggers reactive voting. Studies show that people angered by certain political, economic or social issues do not spend much time gaining information about candidates, and rely more on hearsay. For example, those who vote for far-right parties in Europe or those who voted for Donald Trump in the US weren’t bothered by – or for that matter, interested in – information that, for example, scandalised Trump’s credentials. Angry voters often opt for conservative or authoritarian candidates (G.Marcus/N. Valentino/ P. Vasilopoulos/M. Foucault In Political Psychology, 2019).

Voters angered (especially by) economic slights or rising crime/violence (or perceptions of these issues) view a sitting government or candidate as the root cause of the harm which leads the impacted voter to attempt to remove the source of the harm (M.Wagner in British Politics and Policy, December 2014). This can trigger left or liberal voters to switch and cast their votes for candidates on the right. From 2010 onwards, financial crisis, immigration issues and Islamist terrorism pushed a lot of centrist and left-leaning voters to cast their vote for mainstream as well as the more fringe right-wing parties in Europe and the UK. They found liberal and left-leaning parties to be too soft on the mentioned issues.

The electoral debut of the far-right Barelvi Islamist party the TLP was impressive in Karachi. Even though it failed to win any NA seats, it received the third highest number of votes in the city after PTI and MQMP. Disgruntled/angry MQMP votes were split between PTI and TLP. MQM lost its muscle and persuasion power when it fragmented in 2016.

Much of the Mohajir vote that TLP usurped came from lower-middle-class Mohajirs who are Barelvi. This segment used to vote for JUP before Altaf was successful in attracting their support from 1988 onwards. It’s remarkable how from a secular-ethnic-nationalist platform, MQM was able to breach not only JUP’s vote bank in Karachi, but also JI’s.

On Korangi’s three NA constituencies, TLP was the runner-up party on one seat, and came third on the other two. Korangi, a large industrial town in Karachi with a large lower-middle-and-working-class population (mostly Mohajir) had been an MQM stronghold till 2013.

TLP 2018 election rally in Karachi

Another area where TLP did exceptionally well was in the working-class Lyari area, mostly populated by Baloch and Katchi-Memon communities. Lyari was an electoral bastion of the PPP since 1970. But in 2018, TLP came second on Lyari’s lone NA seat. The seat was won by PTI, with the PPP candidate coming third. So what happened?

TLP received angry votes. It had little or nothing to offer by way of jobs, sewerage or water lines, schools, roads, etc., except populist Barelvi symbols and rhetoric. Partisan MQM voters either stayed at home, or due to anxiety, voted for the PTI. The anger of lower-middle-class Mohajirs who too were partisan MQM voters was successfully mobilised by TLP. The anger in this case was about the manner in which Altaf had been ousted, and the way the party splintered and due to the immediate infighting witnessed in the party’s largest faction, MQMP. This left a majority of MQM MNA’s distracted and unable to provide anything of significance in their constituencies.

The disorientation and chaos in this regard was also caused by the Rangers’ operation against the MQM that forced Altaf’s ouster from the party. The resultant anxiety either produced an avoidance of voting, or voting for PTI. The resultant anger also produced avoidance, but in case of voting, the votes were largely cast for TLP. Same was the case in Lyari, even though the emotion here was anger more than anxiety. Lyari had witnessed a vicious gang war during the PPP-led coalition government (2008-2013).

The party’s co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari, known for his level-headed, pragmatic and rational politics, somewhat erred by allowing former PPP minister Zulfiqar Mirza to exploit cleavages between gangs in Lyari (playing one against the other); and recruit gang members to build a militia. Mirza did this to ward off attacks from MQM activists and Islamist extremist groups that had set up shop in the city to raise funds through criminal means.

But Mirza’s tactics backfired when the facilitated gangsters soon took over the running of Lyari. This made the PPP MNA here seem toothless. He even avoided visiting his own constituency, fearing assassination by gangs. PPP lost it partisan votes here to PTI and TLP. Even though, many partisan Baloch voters in Lyari either abstained or voted for the PPP, many also switched to PTI or TLP. The larger shift was seen in the area’s Kutchi-Memon community, whose once partisan PPP vote-bank was shared between PTI and TLP.

Gang warfare in Lyari


What now? 

PTI clearly squandered the impressive gains that it made in Karachi. Most of its MNAs seemed to have no clue how to navigate the complex politics of this city. This created opportunities for Karachi’s leading traditional parties, such as MQM and the PPP, to rejuvenate and refresh their vote banks here that were badly dented in 2018. There have been 5 NA and 3 PA by-elections here between 2018 and 2022. These can aid us in understanding how things have evolved ever since the 2018 elections, even though by-elections often draw smaller turnouts.

The first by-election was held just two months after the July 2018 general election. Memory of PTI’s ‘wave’ in the city was still fresh and it retained its NA-247 seat. The constituency had given PTI a landslide victory in July 2018. PTI won it again in the October 2018 by-election. TLP, that had come second here in July 2018, did not participate.

There was another NA by-election in October 2018. NA-243 constitutes middle-lower-middle-income areas and has a Mohajir majority. It was a MQM stronghold till it was won by PTI chief Imran Khan in 2018. When he vacated this seat to become PM, it was again won by PTI. The ‘wave’ was continuing well into late 2018.

However, the results of by-elections here between 2021 and 2022 suggest that PTI’s sweep was not a trend that was here to stay. What the latter by-election results show is that the city’s electoral trajectory is still in a flux and hard to pin down.

Let’s start with PS-88, a PA seat in the city’s mostly suburban Malir area. It has a slight Sindhi majority, but there are also significant Pashtun, Mohajir and Punjabi communities here. It’s often considered to be a PPP stronghold. But despite the fact that PPP won the seat in 2018, the PTI candidate provided a ‘tough fight,’ mainly by attracting the constituency’s Pashtun, Punjabi and Mohajir votes. The PTI candidate received 16,386 votes, compared to 22,561 of the PPP man. TLP came third and MQMP fourth.

Two and a half years later, in the February 2021 by-election in this constituency, the PPP managed to increase its tally by over two thousand votes. But this time, the runner-up party was TLP. PTI slipped to third and MQMP remained fourth. PTI lost over ten thousand votes! This time it polled just 4,870 votes. TLP could mange just 6,090 votes.
Much of the Mohajir vote that TLP usurped came from lower-middle-class Mohajirs who are Barelvi. This segment used to vote for JUP before Altaf was successful in attracting their support from 1988 onwards. It’s remarkable how from a secular-ethnic-nationalist platform, MQM was able to breach not only JUP’s vote bank in Karachi, but also JI’s

Sensing the retreat of PTI’s ‘wave’ and the continuing confusion in MQMP, and the deteriorating relations between MQM factions, PPP, which is Sindh’s ruling party, began to steadily concentrate on developmental projects in vulnerable constituencies. One of these was N249. It’s a multiethnic and largely a low-income constituency. It also consists of a large area that has a Pashtun majority. It was won by PTI in 2018. But the victory was narrow. PMLN had come second and TLP third.

MMA won here in 2002, and MQM in 2008 and 2013. MQM’s electoral pull weakened when some new areas were added to this constituency that had non-Mohajir majorities. There was relief in this constituency when the PTI MNA vacated his seat in 2021 to become a senator. The constituents were extremely unhappy with the manner in which he had ignored the many infrastructural problems faced by the people of NA249. PPP was aware of this and jumped in to fill the void. So did PMLN that had come second here in 2018. TLP had come third.

But the results of the February 2021 by-poll here suggests that disappointment more than anger played a role in the way people voted. I say this because, whereas some media reports suggested that TLP will give an even tougher fight here to mainstream parties, the same reports predicted the winning party would be PMLN. However, again, party workers had a different view. They expected a close fight between PMLN and the PPP.

Bulk of the constituency’s Mohajir voters did not come out to vote. They had largely voted here for TLP in 2018. This had aided PTI to grab a close victory. In the by-polls, the PPP concentrated on attracting Pashtun voters in the area who had voted for PTI but were disappointed. The area’s Punjabis largely voted for PMLN. PPP won, closely followed by PMLN. TLP came third. PPP gained over eight thousand votes and PTI lost over twenty-seven thousand votes!

NA-249 by-election results

Karachi’s electoral landscape is still wide open. Those who cover this landscape often get things wrong because they fail to take into account variables beyond cold surveys and their own biases. Electoral psychology is still a developing science, but it can come in handy to more accurately comprehend and analyse complex electoral arenas such as Karachi.

The PTI ‘wave’ has completely receded. MQMP is still struggling to fight Altaf’s shadow. Its message is muddled. It recently failed to bring out partisan MQM voters in Landhi. A college friend of mine who lives in Landhi told me he voted for TLP ‘to punish MQM.’ He was with me in the left-wing National Students Federation (NSF) at college in the 1980s. He then joined the MQM, but was distraught by the in-fighting in MQM. He still calls himself a leftist and secular. TLP is likely to keep chasing ‘angry voters.’ It doesn’t have partisan voters. Angry votes can work as spoilers as they did in 2018, but cannot establish loyalty.

PPP is throwing in a lot to make its presence felt in most non-Mohajir-majority constituencies. Like it did in NA249 by-elections, it wants to usurp Pashtun and Punjabi votes that were cast for PTI in 2018. PMLN wants to become a player in such constituencies as well. TLP votes are not increasing, as some analysts are claiming. They are shrinking. Yet, with the emergence of unprecedented inflation and a possible recession, TLP and PTI might be able to draw out angry and anxiety votes.

Therefore, the coalition government that includes PMLN, MQMP and PPP have to align themselves accordingly to keep PTI down in Karachi and stop TLP from scoring angry votes.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.