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‘Back to business’: Key Karachi party vows to reclaim lost glory in upcoming elections

KARACHI: Once a powerhouse in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi but for years facing what it calls a state-led crackdown, the Muttahida Quami Movement-Pakistan party has vowed to reclaim its lost glory when the South Asian nation of 241 million people goes to general elections next month.

Founded in 1984 by Altaf Hussain, who fled murder charges in Pakistan in 1991 and lives in Britain, the secular MQM has dominated politics and commerce in Karachi for decades through the loyal support of the city’s MuHajjir community of Urdu speakers who migrated from India after independence in 1947.

While the party promotes a secular politics that staunchly opposes militancy, it was also believed to be involved in running a violent enforcement wing that dominated the city’s criminal economy for decades. However, a paramilitary forces-led crackdown on crime since 2013 has undermined the MQM’s power base as authorities arrested scores of MQM members and accused them of torture, murder and racketeering in a bid to keep their grip on the city. MQM denies any link to crime and accuses paramilitary forces of a series of extra-judicial killings of its members, which it denies.

In August 2016, after Hussain incited supporters to storm the office of a television channel, police lodged a case of treason against the firebrand leader and raided and sealed the party’s headquarters, the first incursion into its heavily defended office since the military last raided it in 1992.

The MQM’s fortunes have fallen since, with many key leaders distancing themselves from Hussain and the party itself splitting into three factions, the MQM-P, MQM-London and the Pak Sarzameen Party, or PSP. The party received a final blow in 2018, when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf led by former cricketer Imran Khan emerged as the largest political party in Karachi in the general election that year.

But this year, with the MQM-P announcing a merger with the PSP and disgruntled long-timer Dr. Farooq Sattar, once Hussain’s right-hand man, returning to the fold, the MQM hopes to face Feb. 8 elections as a “better, much more effective” party.

Dr. Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, the leader of MQM-P since February 2018. (Supplied)

“We got Karachi back with the massive public gathering on Sunday (which) declared the result of the Feb. 8, 2024 election,” Dr. Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, the leader of the MQM-P since February 2018, told Arab News in an interview this week, referring to a political rally last Sunday at Karachi’s famed Bagh-e-Jinnah ground. 

“Karachi is back to business, Karachi is back to its people. The original mandate is awaiting Karachi.”

The rally, Siddiqui said, had signaled a dismissal by the people of Karachi of a call by Hussain to boycott polls and shun the MQM-P.

“We don’t see any threat from that boycott appeal,” he said.

Any party that rules Karachi has a massive task ahead of it, as the city of nearly 18 million struggles with crumbling infrastructure and acute shortages of power, water, housing, transport, education and work.

“Actually, we have a very good case to put in front of the people,” Siddiqui said, claiming that the people of Karachi had voted for the MQM for decades precisely because it had helped resolve fundamental issues such as water and mass transit.

But the party’s fortunes had dwindled in recent years, he said, due to an “unannounced ban” on the MQM.

“MQM has (been) struggling to survive themselves after the (violence of) Aug. 22, 2016,” Siddiqui said, referring to Hussain’s anti-state speech that led to the crackdown on the party’s offices and a subsequent split in its ranks.

“Nobody believed that MQM would still, as a political party, survive after our leadership (was banned).”

But Siddiqui said that he had painstakingly worked to put the party back together, continuously approaching leaders and cajoling them to rejoin after they left the party “due to the political turmoil and pressure and operation (by paramilitary Rangers) against the MQM.”

He admitted that the army, which has always had an outsized role in Pakistani politics, had not opposed the party’s merger with disgruntled members and factions.

“Maybe there is not any influence but now they (military) didn’t oppose us (MQM-P) to get united. The only reason (we could unite) is that the opposition against the merger of MQM is now no more there.”

And so, the party is ready to face the upcoming election with renewed vigor, and with a resolve to focus its politics on issues, rather than on leaders, Siddiqui said.

“‘Manzil nahin rehnuma chahiye’ (We need a leader, not a destination) used to be my point of view,” the MQM-P leader said, referring to the politics of the MQM that for decades centered around the figurehead or, what many independent analysts say, the cult of Altaf Hussain.

“Now manzil (destination) is the only way and we are going very speedily toward our goal and destination, god willing.”

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