The southern city of Karachi is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. For two decades a liberal party has had control over the Pakistani city, but now it seems the party is losing its grip on the city.
Karachi, Pakistan's economic hub and home to more than 18 million people, has been in the grip of terror for many years. According to the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), more than 740 people were killed in Karachi last year in ethnic and political violence. Other organizations put the number even higher.
"Political parties are increasingly getting criminalized and criminals have entered the political process," Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the HRCP, told DW. "Each party exercises a certain amount of financial control over the area through extortion and land grabbing. That has added to the volatility of the situation here."
Experts also say that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are increasingly active in Karachi, creating unrest and stirring up violence in the city, which contributes more than 60 percent of the country's tax revenue.
Important political hub
Despite the lawlessness and violence in the city, Karachi is still considered one of the most important political centers in Pakistan due to its economic significance and its population of 18 million. The city has 20 of the 274 seats in the National Assembly, Pakistan's lower house of parliament. Experts say that a party which controls the city has the power to make or break central governments.
So far, it is the liberal Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which has ruled the city for more than two decades without any major opposition. But now it seems the party is losing its grip on the city, with other stakeholders emerging and challenging its power. The MQM not only faces opposition from the secular Pashtun nationalist party, the Awami National Party (ANP), Islamists in the city are also getting more powerful by the day.
Experts say the battle for Karachi is not only about political and economic control, it is also an ideological fight.
A changing Karachi
Following the subcontinent's partition in 1947, thousands of Urdu-speaking Muslims referred to as Muhajirs migrated from India to settle in Karachi, thus transforming the city's demographics. In the 1970s, there was tension between the Muhajirs and the native Sindhis, which prompted Altaf Hussain to launch the Muhajir Qaumi Movement in the1980 to protect his Muhajir community, which perceived itself as a victim of discrimination and repression. This later became known as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
The party enjoyed almost total control over Karachi but with the influx of Pashtuns from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and from the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where the army has been conducting operations against Islamist militants, there has been another change in demographics over the past decade; the liberal MQM claims that a lot of Islamist militants from those northwestern areas have entered Karachi in the past five years.
"The demographics of Karachi are changing. There is in essence a turf war," Yusuf said. "Pashtuns are represented by the Awami National Party (ANP) and they are gaining in strength and numbers there. That is becoming a concern for the MQM," she explained.
But the most recent threat to the MQM's power in Karachi does not come from the Islamists or the ANP. It comes from former cricketer Imran Khan's reformist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or "the Movement for Justice Party," which now enjoys a considerable amount of support among the city's Urdu-speaking population.
Though the PTI could not defeat the MQM in the city in the May 11 parliamentary elections, it still emerged as the second largest party in terms of the total number of votes it received. While the development has baffled the MQM leadership, experts say the PTI has provided an alternative to the people of Karachi who are fed up with the violent politics of the MQM.
The MQM is a liberal party but critics say the party imposes its agenda on people by force and keeps armed wings to harass and kill opponents and dissidents. The party has also been accused of involvement in kidnapping and extortion, though it vehemently denies these allegations.
"The PTI has engaged with the educated people and the youth in Karachi," Khawar Mehmood, a PTI official in Islamabad, told DW. "MQM's armed wings have led to its downfall while the PTI has given the people of Karachi a hope of expressing themselves peacefully and getting out of the clutches of armed oppression."
But Shahid Husain, a Karachi-based journalist associated with the daily The News, told DW that despite setbacks to the MQM in the recent elections, the PTI would not be able to erode the MQM's influence in Karachi. He, however, feels that the MQM needs to change its political tactics.
"The MQM has to change its strategies and make policies that are acceptable to the people. It should get rid of its power politics in order to emerge as a party which can attract the youth," Husain commented.
Critics say that the MQM hasn't done much to reach out to the young people in Karachi whose understanding of politics and the worldview have drastically changed in the past decade. They also say that the party has been in power for such a long time yet it has failed to improve the lives of people in the city.
But some political analysts are of the view that the secular MQM is the only force in Karachi which dares to oppose Islamic extremists and their supporters. The Taliban successfully attacked MQM rallies along with those of other liberal political parties in the city in the run-up to the May 11 elections. Experts say this is proof that the militant outfit now has more influence in the city than ever. By contrast, Khan's PTI was spared by the Islamists for its "sympathetic" approach towards them.
The rise of Islamists and their "sympathizers" in the city, and the downfall of the MQM are an alarming sign for a lot of people.
"A few years ago, when the MQM said that the influence of the Taliban was growing in Karachi, people did not take us seriously and made fun of us. Now, people can see that the Taliban are operating freely in the city," Faisal Subzwari, a senior MQM official, told DW.
Analysts say that center-right parties like the PTI and the Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif do not condemn attacks carried out on liberal parties and single out the MQM, calling them "liberal fascists." MQM leaders defend their party, saying only parties which have the same political ideology as the Taliban would make such remarks.
"The present actions of the PTI and the Muslim League, their politics in the past, and their future ambitions are proof that they are not against the Taliban. It does not matter whether they condemn them or not. The Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam work closely with the Taliban. The PTI and the Muslim League are just confused," Subzwari said.
Jahanzeb Siddiqui, a young MQM supporter in Karachi, is of the view that certain people in the Pakistani establishment want to see the downfall of the MQM so that they can "Islamize" the city.
"The PTI is just another form of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party. If it ever takes control of Karachi, it will give a free hand to the Taliban and other Islamic extremists in the city," Jahanzeb said. He further said that the Pakistani military and its intelligence agency, the ISI, are wary of the MQM because of its secular credentials and opposition to Islamic extremism. He said that the ISI wanted the PTI to replace the MQM in Karachi because the PTI was in favour of the ISI's support to the Taliban and other Islamists. Jahanzeb, however, said he would not abandon his support to the MQM as he did not want to see his city fall into the hands of Islamists.