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The TLP factor

As the dust starts to settle down after the NA-240 by-election, there emerge key takeaways for political observers to assess the ongoing trends in local Karachi politics that are metaphorically as visible as an elephant in the political room.

The biggest among them is the dominating presence of far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in the lower and middle-class neighbourhoods of the metropolis. The by-election result has shown that the TLP as a political phenomenon was not a one-hit wonder that just vanished after the death of the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Their ideological basis remains intact, vibrant and – if allowed to say – violent. The real question remains: is the city’s political leadership strong enough to challenge it?

Fear grappled NA-240 constituents weeks before the actual by-election only because of the fact that the far-right TLP managed to create an overwhelming environment of friction. While the other Karachi-based parties, in a bid to avoid tension in the area, used to close their election offices before the rallies of rival parties, the TLP had an aggressive style of politicking from the very first day. It was very evident that the TLP wanted confrontation.

For an outsider it may just be a display of erratic non-political behaviour but if truth be told there exists a method in the madness here. The TLP thrives on confrontation; its presence is deeply entrenched in violence on the basis of ‘us versus them’, and it validates its presence with its hostile, aggressive standing. The party will lose its locus standi if the violence is taken out of the equation. That being said, it is true that with such electoral performances, considering them as fringe elements will be a wrong assessment – in fact, they are very much mainstream now.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan won the by-poll, retaining the seat in a low-turnout election. The party has shown that it still enjoys a support base, despite massive administrative and financial challenges over the last few years. If this result shows anything, it is that the party, despite all its shortcomings, remains the best challenger to the TLP and its ilk. The city has previously voted for religious parties, but it can never afford to accommodate a violent political entity to represent it. A city already marred with sectarian divisions cannot afford to be given to a divisive political outfit. It is a recipe for disaster, to say the least.

Karachi needs a political voice that focuses on its development; the city desperately needs a pro-people agenda that focuses on employment and better security, and a series of public-private partnership programmes to fill the administrative gaps. This can only be done if genuine political leadership – no matter from which party – is given space to do politics. It will be unfair to expect the MQM-P or for that matter any party to compete with the rising far-right with their hands tied and backs against the wall.

Karachi, despite its violent past, has a diverse and pluralistic ethos. It is a city where civil liberties are relatively more prioritized than anywhere else in the country. This needs to be protected and cherished – and one of the ways to do this is by ensuring political representation remains genuine.

The upcoming NA-245 by-election will be a test for the state authorities including the Election Commission of Pakistan to ensure a level playing field for every political party and to draw a line over violence. With major political players putting their candidates, there are chances for violence, especially from TLP cadres. One precious life was lost in the last by-election, we cannot afford more. The city has established relative peace after a long painful bloody process; it will be a shame if it loses all this because of the politics of an outfit thriving on hate and friction.

Lastly, while the state must keep a check on the TLP and draw a red line to establish its writ, political actors must show maturity in their decisions as well. The division of votes as seen in the NA-240 polls give a strong advantage to the TLP. Although it’s an idea too idealistic to be true, it will be a success for Karachi and its mainstream political forces if, under the MQM-P, a joint candidate is put up to challenge the TLP. The MQM-P is ready to take the lead in that regard because as the result shows that it is the prime challenger to the TLP. The onus is on others to make a decision on this. May better sense prevail.

Taha Ahmed Khan, "The TLP factor," The News. 2022-06-25.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Electoral performances , Elections , Khadim Hussain Rizvi , Pakistan , TLP , MQMP , Political leadership , Political outfit , Political players