Forgive me, for I have Sindh

October 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Given the ongoing unpleasantness, this seems a good  time to talk about the problems in the Pakistani province of Sindh, and in particular in the city of Karachi.

But before we do so, a bit of immediate news. The Pakistani Election Commission has suspended 148 lawmakers (35 MNAs: members of the federal parlaiment – the National Assembly, and 113  members of provincial authorities). The move is in response to their failure to submit declarations of interest by the required time, and represents a tough new approach by the ECP. However, it is unlikely to have a lasting effect, except that it will hopefully be the kick to the behind to get their paperwork in order. 16 lawmakers have already been reinstated and the rest will, in all probability, soon follow.

What is more interesting is this, new, activist approach by the Election Commission could herald a new spate of by elections as lawmakers are disqualified – permanently this time – for not having valid degrees.

According to Pakistani rules, to stand for parliament you must have a valid undergraduate degree. The situation is complicated by the fact that a religious qualification from a madrassa does count as a degree – but only if the madrassa is “reputable”. Madrassas in Pakistan are broadly unregulated, and the quest to regulate them goes to the heart of Pakistan’s ongoing internal debate as to what the correct relationship between Islam and the state should be. As a result, determining who has valid degrees, from the point of view of standing for parliament, is a struggle.

The result is that I believe 5 MNAs have already been disqualified for having fake degrees, or degrees from institutions which were not acceptable. These were the blatant cases. However, the ECP has so far been unwilling to act against others who may also have fake degrees for fear of unleashing a political earthquake. It is thought up to 68  MNAs may also lack valid degrees. Pakistan’s activist judiciary have been pushing the ECP hard for action and it looks like they may now get it. Prepare for a slew of by-elections.


Sadly more than 72 people have now been killed since Sunday’s by-election, Yesterday was the worst day yet, with 35 shot dead. To an outsider, it may seem strange that so much violence could be caused by a by-election in a safe seat where all the other parties boycotted and the seat was retained with 99.2% of the vote. However, the violence is not about the by-election per-se but about the ongoing battle for control of Karachi.

Firstly, one needs to understand how elections are fought in Pakistan. This is a complicated issue and I would urge anyone who is interested to read one of the two (extraordinarily there are only two) superb books on the subject: Andrew Wilder’s The Pakistan Voter or Mohammed Waseem’s Democratization in Pakistan: A Study of the 2002 Elections. To a certain extent they are fought on the issues, using conventional means. However, there is still a large role in the system played by brokers.

Brokers are individuals who gain control over large banks of voters through, in the crudest example, bribes, murders and intimidation; or more sophisticatedly as a quid-pro-quo for providing services of access-to, and mediation-with, the state. They trade these votebanks with the political parties in exchange for, in some instances, money and more generally local public goods (development spending) which further enhance their reputation and access. They don’t operate as monopolies, but in competition with each other, and they don’t operate ideologically, but trade offers with parties.

It has been suggested that politically motivated murders can be thought of as advertisements on behalf of the brokers. They are a signal mechanism to demonstrate to the parties that these are the people you have to deal with, that they have more power than other brokers – and to the public that you have to keep in line. They are also part of an ongoing struggle for control of the streets which is not only political, but also paramilitary, and involves not only parties, but also Mafias.

On top of all this we have the situation in the province of Sindh. Sindh is Pakistan’s second most populous province; it occupies the Indus delta (Sindh is another name for the Indus). When the western media talks of Pakistani political parties. they tend to talk about their Punjabi  incarnations, since it is in the more populous Punjab where national elections are invariably won and lost. Thus the PPP are more centre-left, more urban, more secular, less feudal, and the PML (both N and Q: the split is between those who supported and those who opposed the military takeover) are more centre-right, more rural, more religious, more feudal. Now it could be argued that these differences do not go very deep, that they are a cosmetic cover for two parties who are basically just vehicles for two different political elites (the Sharif family and the Bhutto family, Q being dominated by the Choudhury family), but few would say that the characterisations are utterly merit-less.

However, they don’t really explain Sindh. Firstly in Sindh there is no PML – or at very least no PML-N. Nor has there ever been much of one except when Pakistan was effectively a one party state: the PML are too closely associated with Punjabi power. Moreover the Bhutto family, who more or less own the PPP (internal democracy is virtually non existent in Pakistan; and a recent constitutional amendment – the 13th – gives the party chairmen incredibly strong powers over their parties) are Sindhi feudal landlords. In Sindh, the PPP represent not only their federal platform, but also feudal power and they have virtually no rivals for Sindhi votes (the Pirs of Pagara, Sufi leaders and thorns in the side of every Government of the last hundred years, have a party  -currently called the PML-F, the name varies – which can be guarantee to win between 3 and 5 seats near Khairpur and no more or less). The result is that Sindhi politics is, broadly speaking, without ideology.

But there are not only Sindhis living in Sindh. Indeed in most of the major cities Sindhis are a minority. Instead the cities are dominated by two immigrant groups: Mohajirs and Pashtuns. Mohajirs are the Urdu speaking descendants of refugees from central India, who came to Sindh following partition. Pashtuns are the Pashto speaking refugees from war in Afghanistan and economic migrants from the North-West of Pakistan. Both groups have their own political party: the MQM for Mohajirs and the ANP for Pashtuns.

Whilst these parties are mortal enemies, they are actually quite similar. Both claim to be centre-left, secular, pluralist, inclusive parties. Both are accused of being the vehicle for a family involved in criminal activity (the Hussain family for the MQM and the Wali family for the ANP), of being Mafias in their own rite, and of having a far right ethno-nationalist agenda. As with all things there is a bit of truth to both the official and the critical characterisation. The amount of bile directed at the more successful MQM in particular is extraordinary: when I was in Pakistan I only met one non MQM member who could talk about them without using the word “fascist” and only half a dozen who managed not to say “Indian traitors”.

The result is a province deeply divided upon ethnic lines – and also deeply divided between countryside and cities. Here is the result of the last national election (provincial results almost exactly followed these):

Overall the PPP won enough seats in the countryside to make up for the fact that they had won only seven of the 42 seats available in Karachi, and had a majority in the provincial assembly. However they chose to form a coalition with the MQM anyway. This was in part due to the need for a national reconciliation, and in part because they realised the total impossibility of forming a government to rule the province which had virtually no representation in Karachi – the multi million person super-city that dominates the province. This would be particularly true after they abolished local government.

Ah, local government. I’ve written 10,000 words on the local government of Pakistan, and I barely scratched the surface. Here is the TLDR version:

1: The military regime introduced a new government system in 2000. It was very ambitious, had 3 interlocking tiers, banned political party participation, had several positive characteristics and about a thousand structural flaws. But it was popular with the public.

2: It was hated by the political parties who felt that it was an antidemocratic attempt to sideline them, and have government without parties. They weren’t necessarily wrong.

3: The exception was the MQM: the MQM loved it because they knew that, whilst they could never control Sindh, by hiding their political affiliations for five minutes they could use it to take control of Karachi – this they did in 2005.

4: The MQM’s leadership of Karachi was controversial. Karachi was changed out of all recognition, largely for the better, but there were suggestions that some of the money went astray, and a suspicion that anyone could have fixed Karachi if they’d been given that much money to do it with.

5: Elsewhere local government struggled due to the hostility of political parties.

6: When the military regime fell, political parties rushed to demolish local government as fast as they constitutionally could (January 2010), placed the entire system into mothballs, put civil servants in charge, and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

7: In Karachi the MQM hit the roof and have been actively campaigning to get “their” city government back ever since. As the system has not been abolished (it is just in mothballs) all that is required to do this is to hold fresh elections. And so we have the current dance around election dates. How long can an election be delayed for? Well the PPP have managed to push it back five times already, and currently elections have been postponed indefinitely until:

  • a) the floods go down
  • b) the security situation allows (this is subject to interpretation)
  • c) the PPP and MQM can jointly agree a new local government ordinance which is satisfactory to both parties (it is thought this event will be signalled by a pig flying over a blue moon on the last of a month of Sundays)

And so we have a MQM, who were running one of the world’s largest cities but now aren’t, and are part of a coalition to run a province with a senior partner who doesn’t need them. We also have a PPP who run a province but have less than a toehold in the largest city in that province. And we also have an ANP who, because of the first-past-the-post system of elections, have hundreds of thousands of supporters and virtually no seats (even the NPP, a group linked to the Jatoi family who were part of, and then fell out with, both the PPP and the PML ended up with more seats than them).

The Provincial Assembly elects 130 members by first past the post in constituencies. In proportion to the number from each party elected it then appoints 29 female reserved candidates and 9 non-Muslim ethnic minority reserved candidates. The overall result is this:


And so we have a volatile, deeply ethnicity riven society, and many people who feel disenfranchised. As a result the political/ethnic battle for control is welling over into violent incidents. Moreover, there were two major assassinations of MQM leaders recently: provincial leader Raza Haider was shot dead in Karachi in August (causing the by-election), and exiled leader Imran Farooq was murdered on London’s green lanes in September. But the current violence is not just retaliation and counter-retaliation: it is part of an ongoing political and paramilitary struggle for control of the province.



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