While Pakistan still awaits a definitive date for the next general elections, the “homecoming” of PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif has pushed the country into “election mode,” reflecting shifts in the political landscape in the aftermath of the May 9 riots, which have virtually sidelined the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). While the PMLN stands to gain the most from the PTI’s decline in Punjab, the PPP faces similarly favorable winds in Sindh, especially Karachi, even as its remaining rivals maintain the public is ready for new rulers after 15 consecutive years of the PPP at the helm.
To achieve this goal, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) and the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) have agreed to form an electoral alliance, vowing to challenge the PPP in its Sindh stronghold. The three parties, says MQM-P Senior Deputy Convener Mustafa Kamal, have a “comfortable” understanding. Explaining their strategy, he claimed the MQM-P would support the GDA and JUIF in interior Sindh, while they would likewise support the MQM-P in urban centers such as Karachi and Hyderabad. The aim is to utilize the parties’ respective support structures to bolster each other’s candidates, while pushing a narrative of change to reduce the PPP’s standing. The JUIF, similarly, says the three parties have decided to “field joint candidates” in districts with strong PPP support, while contesting independently in other areas.
However, the PPP sees little challenge to its supremacy in Sindh. Speaking with the Standard, PPP Karachi President Saeed Ghani was blunt in rubbishing the MQM-P-JUIF-GDA alliance, maintaining similar initiatives were seen in 2008, 2013, and 2018 but had only resulted in increasing the PPP’s vote-bank. “Many political bigwigs joined the PPP before and after every general elections,” he said, recalling the Ghaus Bakhs Maher family joined the party after the 2018 polls, while Ali Gohar Mehr from Ghotki had joined it earlier this month. “We are comfortable in interior Sindh and recent local body elections are manifestation of this fact that the PPP will sweep the entire Sindh,” he added.
This view is also partially accepted by independent observers, who see little chance of the PPP losing the Sindh government. “I don’t see any reason to believe the PPP status quo is going to be changed in a remarkable manner, except that those anti-PPP parties who contested the elections individually in the past are going to make some sort of alliance now,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT). “If the MQM-P joins hands with the JUIF, which has a sizeable presence in interior Sindh as the MQM-P has sizeable presence in urban areas of Sindh, and this alliance is joined by the GDA and PMLN, then it can be a formidable alliance,” he said.
Journalist Mazhar Abbas, meanwhile, believes the tri-party alliance would find success difficult, as their voters are too far apart from each other to vote for candidates other than those of their own parties. “The anti-PPP groups have hardly worked in rural Sindh. Thus, despite its bad governance in the last 15 years, the PPP still has an edge, though its vote bank is likely to drop in the next general elections,” he said.
While few expect the PPP to lose the Sindh government after the next elections, whether or not it retains the same number of seats remains under question. “We are anticipating a fragmented mandate in the next general elections and no political party will have sweeping majority,” claimed MQM-P’s Kamal, predicting his party to regain its 2013 position in Sindh after the recent merger of its disparate factions. “The MQM had 20 seats in Karachi, of which it won 17 seats, besides two seats from Hyderabad, and the MQM had representation with 24 seats in the National Assembly in 2013, whereas now there are 22 seats and we believe the MQM would grab all these seats back,” he told Standard.
PILDAT’s Mehboob has similar views about the PPP losing some seats in the upcoming polls, but remains confident the party would regain the government—even if it has to enter into a coalition. Referring to the tri-party alliance, he said it could certainly dent the PPP’s overall standing. “But it may not be able to turn [the PPP’s] single largest party status into a minority party,” he added.
But while the PPP is unlikely to be dethroned in Sindh, Mehboob says its chances at forming the next government at the center are slim-to-none. “I don’t believe the PPP has high chances of winning elections at the national level, and likewise I don’t think the party would be able to win elections in any other province except few seats in KP, which can make them a good coalition partner in the province, and Balochistan,” he said, adding it would likely join a ruling coalition in Punjab.
Journalist Abbas agrees with Mehboob on the PPP lacking any major challengers in Sindh. Maintaining the party is unlikely to lose its position in interior Sindh, he told the Standard, it might in fact regain some seats in Karachi owing to the prevailing political scenario. “So, in the present scenario with anti-PPP parties divided and having internal organizational issues in Sindh, things stand in the PPP’s favor,” he said.
Key to the confidence of the PPP’s rivals are claims of the party failing to govern Sindh in a manner that would encourage voters to turn out for it once more. “The PPP believes that it would buy the elections, rather than contesting them,” alleged Kamal, claiming the poor performance of the PPP and sidelining of the PTI had created an ideal scenario for the MQM-P to regain lost ground. “We believe we’ll be able to reclaim 85 percent of [Karachi’s] mandate,” he claimed.
The MQM-P isn’t the only rival of the PPP to point to its perceived poor governance over the past 15 years. JUIF spokesperson Aslam Ghauri told the Standard his party believes the party’s record was sufficient to encourage a shift in the status quo. “We are on the roads in interior Sindh as part of our election campaign and overwhelming public response is evident of the fact that things have changed for the PPP in Sindh,” he claimed. “The PPP has always claimed victory on the basis of massive corruption and by kidnapping polling agents and suppressing the voice of people by employing dirty means,” he alleged, indicating a vitriolic election campaign in the next few months.
“In the last 15 years, the PPP government in Sindh has received Rs. 20,000 billion in budget but communication, infrastructure, irrigation system have collapsed while law and order in Karachi and dacoity in interior speak volumes of its incompetence,” alleged PMLN Karachi President Bashir Memon.
Lamenting the lack of any significant achievements over the past 15 years, he criticized Sindh’s “ghost schools and teachers,” adding the caretaker government launched a recent operation to tackle dacoits in the katcha area. A former director-general of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Memon further alleged that PPP governments had “patronized” a smuggling network. “The police department has never been so inefficient and ineffective as it is now,” he claimed, adding the bureaucracy was similarly corrupt.
Key to victory of any of the parties is securing public support. On this point, the PPP’s Ghani maintains that his party has no viable rivals in Sindh. Alleging that the MQM-P lacked any presence on the ground, he alleged it would be entirely wiped out if “hidden hands”—a euphemism for the military establishment—withdrew their support for it. While acknowledging a vote bank for the JUIF in Sukkur and Larkana divisions, he said recent by-elections had proven there was no real competition. “I don’t foresee the JUIF posing any serious threat to the PPP’s popularity in interior Sindh,” he said, expressing confidence that of 61 seats to the National Assembly from Sindh, the PPP would win 46.
The JUIF’s Ghauri, meanwhile, claimed “independent surveys” had found his party leading in Jacobad, Jamshoro, Kashmor, Larkana, Shikarpur, Qambar Shahdadkot, Hyderabad, Ghotki and Badin. By contrast, he claimed, the PPP had been “wiped out” of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and had no major contenders in Punjab. “if you ask us about public response, we can rightly say the PPP is finished, therefore, the PPP is complaining about lack of level playing field,” he claimed, suggesting the party’s recent calls for a “level-playing” field were all for show.
The one commonality among all aspirants of the upcoming elections is a fear of the establishment’s interference—though they differ on which party they believe would be the beneficiary. The JUIF believes the ultimate beneficiary is the PPP. “Public mandate is against the PPP and if the PPP wins with majority in Sindh, it would be at the behest of the establishment not with electoral support,” alleged spokesperson Ghauri.
Both the MQM-P and PPP, meanwhile, believe each other to be receiving support from the establishment—though are united in accusing the PMLN of being the ultimate beneficiary. “This time the party [PMLN] seems to have compromised on all ethics and political values,” claimed PPP’s Ghani, reflecting the views of his party’s senior leadership, which has repeatedly bemoaned “favoritism” for the PMLN—especially its chief Nawaz Sharif.
Noting there had been three anti-PPP governments in Sindh over the past 30 years, the MQM-P’s Kamal was confident that history could repeat. However, he added, the PPP could secure a government in Sindh if “Nawaz needs the PPP under some kind of doctrine of necessity.”
Dismissing the allegations, the PMLN accepts that it lacks a major presence in Sindh, but believes the public is ready for change that it could also benefit from. “We’ll definitely get response from Sindh. This time more than 12,000 people traveled to Lahore to attend Nawaz’s [homecoming rally] and this participation was an invitation to the PMLN to come to Sindh and save them,” said Memon, while admitting it would require significant time and effort to wipe out the PPP from Sindh.