MQM: Between perils and promises

Spearhead Analysis – 16.05.2013

By Zoon Ahmad Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

MQM Altaf Hussain

Altaf Hussein remains the most controversial figure in the Pakistani political saga. Recent events have re-enforced the absurdity with which Altaf Bhai orchestrates Karachi’s realpolitik.  Hussein is convicted for numerous murder extortions, organized crime and terrorist offences. He is also the key suspect in over a hundred murder cases including one of his own comrades in England. Residing in Edgware, Altaf’s latest verbal drone has brought thousands more to ‘Teen Talwar’ against the massive rigging and terror tactics Karachi’s voter is intimidated under.

Bizarrely the MQM too has taken to the streets against rigging as of today and demands justice. As for the open threats to the protestors made by Altaf on live television, he conveniently denied them. As irrational as it may seem, Karachi’s voter as of now is completely divided. MQM, despite Altaf’s controversial record remains popular, not only by ‘hook or crook’, but also because of MQM’s deep penetration into Karachi’s middle and lower middle classes.

Having risen up the ranks as the poor-man’s party, the MQM has for decades been representative of the Urdu speaking population’s woes. Muhajjir Qaumi Movement, established in 1978, became the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in 1997 to expand its appeal. And Karachi has through democratic process sustained its monopoly over the city. The appearance of ANP in the landscape after the influx of Pashtoons seems to have further aggravated the security situation. It is safe to say that the MQM has coerced Karachi into submission and silent acceptance of an appalling state of affairs. Bomb blasts, target killings, gunpoint robberies are the norm. People in small pockets feel safe but worry for their lives if they wander off on unclaimed or alien territory. Amidst this healthy competition between the legal thugs there is also a Taliban threat that escalates and dies down at its whim.

This week’s election has changed the political landscape of the entire country. While many disagree given the PML-N’s sweeping victory in Punjab and on the federal level, the emergence of PTI and downfall of PPP have proven that the old names cannot monopolize the political landscape. Performance matters. For the MQM it is paramount to realize that under the scrutinizing lens of the media, and with more options for the voter, they may as well re-define the rules of the game, before they are replaced completely. Karachi is no longer silent, and the protests at ‘teen talwar’ have made it increasingly difficult for any political party to form an alliance with them, the way the PPP had.

Is the controversial MQM good only for spreading terror? Not quite. With an excellent manifesto, and active local governance the MQM may as well divorce itself from a leadership that only threatens its survival. Sitting in London, making open and direct threats, Altaf Bhai seems to be unnerving his party. For MQM to survive at all, it has to accept that politics of terror is no longer a sustainable strategy. As secular Karachi becomes increasingly vocal, it is willing to turn towards a right wing party in exchange for basic security. A silent shift from thugs to the ‘secular’ faces of the city may prove beneficial. The past 5 years have been dedicated to a few successful infrastructure projects including sewerage system, re-carpeting of major arteries, and water supply. Already, with good party leadership on the local level, and great mass support it can have a promising future ahead.

This dichotomy between the peaceful and the terrorist party could have instead been converted into one between the secular and the Taliban-friendly. The peace-loving have won the hearts of a secular Karachi that is desperately in need of better governance; or governance alone. For an outsider who looks closely, the MQM is a contradiction. With a manifesto that promises equality, derails religious rhetoric for humanity has tied down Pakistan’s largest city, consumed it in panic. Facing threats by the Taliban itself, the MQM is both the prey and predator.