Pakistan Reader# 319, 6 April 2022
Among the allies of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) coalition government, Muttahida Quami Movement – Pakistan (MQM-P) had the most – seven seats in the National Assembly. Though this was a historic low for the MQM with a stronghold in urban Sindh, from the previous 24 seats, its support to the PTI in 2018 was crucial.
Four years later, it withdrew its support to the PTI, and have joined the opposition. Four reasons explain MQM-P’s shift from government coalition to opposition camps.
First, the MQM’s politics of pragmatism, opportunism and survivability. In every election it has participated in, barring 2013, MQM has been part of the federal government at one time or another. With a narrow but a significant base in urban Sindh, it has proved to be an important actor in coalition politics. It first allied with the PPP in 1988 led by Benazir Bhutto and later supported the no-confidence motion against the government initiated by the Islamic Democratic Alliance, a coalition of parties led by Nawaz Sharif. In the 1991 elections, it again allied with the victorious PML-N led by Sharif. At the same time, the Army initiated counter-insurgency operations against the MQM, without the approval of Sharif, highlighting the fraught civil-military relations. Lawlessness in Karachi were cited as a reason for the dismissal of both the Bhutto and Sharif government. MQM boycotted the 1993 elections, and this period saw a heavy crackdown, first by the army and later by the second Benazir Bhutto government, unleashing a tremendous amount of violence against the party. In 2002, it supported the Musharraf regime and reaped the benefits by de facto controlling the provincial capital, Karachi.
Over the years, the MQM has learned to align its interest according to the shifting nature of power. Despite splits and crackdown by the army, MQM continues to survive due to its politics of aligning itself towards the emerging political consensus. While MQM has split into many factions, pragmatism and survivability still mark the thinking of MQM-P.
Second, is the fragile relationship with the PTI. MQM-P allied with the PTI by signing an agreement ranging from reform in local government, de-politicising police, auditing constituencies identified by MQM-P, establishing a university in Hyderabad, safe recovery of its party workers and reopening sealed offices in Karachi and Hyderabad. However, the PTI had failed to implement any of the promises. At various times, the MQM-P had made clear its disapproval. In 2020, the leader of MQM-P and Minister for Information Technology and Telecommunication Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui resigned from the federal cabinet because of “unfulfilled promises.” It had expressed disappointment over the PTI’s attitude in recovering missing workers, slow pace of the Karachi Transformation Plan, and the 2017 censusThe relationship between remained unsteady and at times MQM-P also floated the idea of minus-Imran Khan within the current set-up.
Third, MQM-P’s bargaining power vis-a-vis the opposition. For the opposition, persuading MQM-P towards its side was important to succeed in the no-confidence motion. The removal of the ATC judge by the Sindh government, who was hearing the cases against PPP and MQM-P members, was ostensibly a process of extending olive leaves to the latter. The opposition acceding to almost all demands of the MQM-P ranging from the reforms in the local policing system, local governance structure, implementation of urban-rural quota in government jobs, and formation of provincial finance commission was an offer too good to be refused. With the 18th amendment, the local government reforms at the helm of the provincial government, striking a deal with the PPP is MQM’s effort to safeguard its turf against the new players as well as to deter the PPP from encroaching on the powers of the local governments. Recently, PPP also signed agreements with JI and PSP on the implementation of local government laws, and there were rumours that they might align with PPP in the local elections, which have the same voter base as the MQM.
Finally, MQM looking at the forthcoming elections. Once a major political party in urban Sindh, it has lost grounds due to splits and new players, especially PTI and TLP. Multiple factions and leadership problems post-Altaf Hussian, have left the party fractured and battered with internal debates. In the 2018 general elections, PTI won 14 out of 21 National assembly seats in Karachi, becoming the dominant political force in the city. Similarly, the emergence of TLP has cut across the Mohajir votes, which made them lose at least six national assembly seats.
With rising inflation, government’s unpopularity and governance issues, it seemed pragmatic for MQM to join the opposition and minimise its losses. To regain its space encroached by the PTI and TLP, it would need the help of the PPP, which leads the provincial government. If MQM and PPP can work together to resolve the civic issues, it could salvage its popularity at the grassroots level against the incumbent PTI legislators. To remain with the PTI coalition was much a burden for the MQM-P which it was unwilling to take forward to the next elections.
(Fahad Chaudhry, “MQM confirms supports to PTI in exchange for federal package for Karachi,” Dawn, 3 August 2018)
(Noor Aftab and Ziaur Rehman, “MQM-P gives PTI led govt a jolt,” The News International, 13 January 2020)
(“MQM floats minus Imran Khan idea again,” The News International, 24 March 2022).
(Ishaq Tanoli, “ATC judge hearing key cases against PPP, Muttahida men removed,” Dawn, 30 March 2022)
(Imran Ayub, “PPP accepts old MQM demands in new deal against Imran govt,” Dawn, 31 March 2022)
(Oonib Azam, “Flimsy PPP-PSP pact doesn’t even hold a candle to weak agreement with JI,” The News International, 6 February 2022).
(Ebad Ahmed, “MQM: still relevant?,” The News International, 15 August 2021).