‘He needs our votes’: In Karachi, Pakistan election tests old loyalties | Elections
Karachi, Pakistan – These are the fourth general elections I’m covering in Pakistan over the past 16 years. In a city where colours, music and ethnicities change from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, every one of those previous elections has been confusing.
This one has been the same: chaotic and confusing. I started the day by voting at my neighbourhood polling station. It’s something I’ve always struggled with: Should journalists vote?
Then, as I reported from Pakistan’s largest city – home to 22 seats, more than the entire province of Balochistan – on Thursday, I realised that not only was Pakistan’s democracy on trial but so too were the city’s loyalties.
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had won 14 National Assembly seats in the 2018 election from Karachi, breaking voters away from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which has traditionally dominated the city’s political landscape. With the MQM split into multiple factions since 2016, its disenchanted voters found solace in Khan’s party, from the affluent southern areas of Karachi all the way to the city’s north.
I was standing outside my polling station in Clifton, barely 1km (0.6 miles) away from Bilawal House, which is the Karachi home of the Bhutto-Zardari family, which leads the Pakistan People’s Party. The PPP has historically been the most dominant political force in the province of Sindh, whose capital is Karachi.
Yet, on Thursday, most people streaming out to vote in this upscale part of Karachi were PTI supporters, many of them women who had stepped out at 8am to be among the first to cast their ballot.
N Tariq, a 50-year-old who did not want to share her full name, said she came first in the morning to ensure she caught the polling staff in a good mood and in the hope the voting process would be smooth and without long queues.
“I’m voting for the person who is in trouble right now. He needs our votes”, said Tariq. She laughed as she said this, referring to Khan, who received multiple sentences in a range of cases last week.
My next stop was one of the largest polling stations in Defence Phase 4, a cantonment housing area, run by Pakistan’s powerful military, which Khan’s supporters blame for derailing the party – its leaders are in jail, and candidates can’t even use the party symbol.
An upscale neighbourhood, the polling station was already getting busy – but it was missing the celebratory atmosphere of the 2018 election, when I had spent a few hours outside this venue.
By this time, my cellular and data connection had been cut and I could no longer contact anyone. As a native Karachite, losing cellular connectivity isn’t new to me but this was a day when law and order could be compromised and it was very unnerving.
I headed towards Lyari, a PPP stronghold. As I drove through Lyari’s Cheel Chowk – the usually very noisy and congested area, home to decades-long gang wars, was eerily calm. It was so quiet that it made me uncomfortable.
The flags and banners were up but there was no music, no dancing, no blaring of Dilan Teer Bija – the PPP’s viral anthem.
As I began going through different polling stations, I came across many elderly women voters.
Rehmat, 75, and Kulsom, 60, came together to the polling station – where I wasn’t allowed in despite having accreditation. Kulsom said she was only voting for the PPP because it was the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.
“Bilawal is her son and they have given us everything. Water, gas, and brought peace to this area, PPP has given us everything. What else do we need? I will always stand by PPP till my last breath,” said Kulsom. She was referring to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the 36-year-old leader of the PPP.
Rehmat said her children don’t have jobs but the PPP is her choice too.
She voted for Bilawal’s grandfather – former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – in 1970, and then for Benazir, and now she is determined to vote for Bilawal.
“They work for us and they take care of us – how can we not love the Bhuttos?”, she said.
This wasn’t the sentiment shared by everyone in Lyari. A first-time voter, 18-year-old Mohammed Yazdan said promises are made before elections but never fulfilled.
“I’m voting for Imran Khan, PTI, because those who do work are always pulled down by them. Look at what they’ve done to him. I will continue supporting him.”
I went into the heart of the city, in the old Golimar area, a working-class neighbourhood. There were small pockets of Tehreek-e-Labbaik, MQM and Jamaat-e-Islami supporters in the streets helping voters.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik, a far-right party formed in 2017, rallies support by focusing its politics around religion. Jamaat-e-Islami, also a religious right-wing party, is among Pakistan’s most organised political forces, with a charity wing, the Al Khidmat Foundation.
I found that voters were hesitant to admit they were going to be voting for PTI-affiliated candidates who have had to contest as independents.
One female voter who wished to remain anonymous said: “I’m sitting in the MQM tent to get my polling numbers sorted but my vote is always for the leader of the nation I can’t name. I wanted to come today to be a polling agent but we were told there would be security issues for those affiliated with PTI candidates.”
In the Pakistan Employees Cooperative Housing Society, an old neighbourhood known locally by its acronym PECHS, one of the larger polling stations is a college campus that has an unpaved dirt entrance and steps that go down into the main courtyard. After crossing it, voters had to climb up to the first and second floors to access polling booths, making the venue hard to reach for the elderly and people with limited ability to walk and climb stairs.
Dr Raza, 60 who lives in this constituency and only shared his last name, said that this college is always allotted as a polling station. He said he had written to the Election Commission of Pakistan many times asking them to reconsider the location due to its inaccessibility for those with physical limitations.
“Whether these are fair or not, it’s my duty to show up. But not everyone can. This polling station isn’t accessible for everyone,” he said.
In Gulshan-e-Iqbal, near the city’s biggest cricket venue, the National Stadium, voters at polling booths in a school campus complained that they had been there since 8am but election commission staff had arrived only at 11am and that, too, without ballot papers.
The long queue snaked around the building and was barely moving. As I shuffled through the crowd, at least eight men and women leapt out of their places in line to ask me to report what was happening there and how voters were effectively being dissuaded from casting their ballots.
It was hard to push through the crowd and the presiding officer who sat in an empty room on the same floor told me there was nothing he could do and that yes, staff had arrived late.
I headed to an area packed with apartment complexes next to Gulistan-e-Johar. Though it was a public holiday, most people were getting on with daily work. Shops were open, there were daily wage workers and painters waiting to be contracted and shops were busy selling flowers and street food.
At a polling station within an apartment complex, the queue for women moved rapidly and Rehana Razi, 81, was one of those lined up to cast her vote.
“I’m older than Pakistan,” Razi said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’m here to vote and everything has been very systematic. It’s a secret who I’m here to vote for.”
Zohaib Khan, 36, was waiting outside the polling station with his toddler daughter, while his wife had lined up to vote. He had voted in Malir, more than 14.5km (9 miles) away but his wife was allotted the polling station in Gulistan-e-Johar.
“So we’ve come all the way here, because we have to vote for our PTI candidates. We want PTI to get more time to prove they can do real work for Karachi,” he said.
Karachi’s voters clearly have changed. Yet, the poorer neighbourhoods of the city remain as they were decades ago. Water, cooking gas, a cleaner city, proper sewage – these remain central concerns for the city of 17 million people.
Will those ever be addressed? And in a city as complex as this, can any one party really claim Karachi as its own?