By Maria Abi-Habib and Zia Ur-Rehman
July 23, 2018
8KARACHI, Pakistan — Karachi’s residents will go to the polls angry this week.
The city, Pakistan’s economic powerhouse, is in shambles, roads crumbling, slums expanding, deprived of basic government services although it provides the country with about 40 percent of its revenue. And its political landscape has been profoundly jumbled.
Across the country, Pakistani voters will be making choices on Wednesdaythat have been heavily winnowed by the military establishment, which through intimidation and a sympathetic judiciary has repressed its unfavored candidates — and even entire political movements — in recent months.
Nowhere have the results of the military’s manipulation of politics been more evident than in Karachi, both for worse and for better.
For the first time in three decades, Karachi residents will vote without much of the threat of street violence and poll manipulation that kept the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or M.Q.M., as the city’s dominant force for so long.
Pakistan’s military launched an operation in 2013 to break the M.Q.M.’s hold on power in Karachi and combat the gangs that had cropped up to challenge it — bulldozing the party’s offices, arresting its leaders — that many credit as restoring some stability. Before then, waking up to dozens of dead bodies dumped on the streets by those gang wars was not an unusual morning.
But the changes to the city did not stop there. A census last year undercounted the city’s population, according to politicians, who say Karachi is home to about five million more people than the 15 million reported. Karachi politicians from several parties say the national election commission used those census results to gerrymander the constituencies for this election in an effort to ensure that the city would never again be under the stranglehold of a single party.
These moves, politicians say, were pursued by the military with the support of the country’s courts. Soldiers even went door to door with census workers to count each household, illustrating the military’s unusual interest in the count.
One result of Karachi’s new relative stability has been an upwelling of long-repressed dissent and complaints about the state of the city.
“There’s a lot of anger among voters asking what has been done for them,” said Omar Shahid Hamid, a senior police officer in Karachi. “Candidates can’t even campaign without being mobbed by angry residents. But they must now face this anger without the fist of street violence.”
A microcosm of Pakistan, Karachi represents the country’s diverse ethnic and sectarian makeup, the grievances of each group and the harassment or perversion of the institutions meant to protect them: the news media, security services and the courts.
As the military cracked down on the M.Q.M., the Taliban and the city’s other militant factions in recent years, it was accused of human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Law enforcement officials said Pakistan’s weak judicial system had left them little choice but to act on their own.
But as rogue militancy waned and police and military abuses continued, Karachi’s residents began to question if they were merely trading one despotic regime for another.
When Naqeebullah Mehsud, an ethnic Pashtun shopkeeper and aspiring model with a large social media following, was killed by the police in January, officials said he had militant ties. His family and supporters disputed that claim, as did an internal police inquiry.
Mr. Mehsud’s killing helped set off a Pashtun civil rights movement that spread across Pakistan. The movement — known by the initials P.T.M., from words that translate as Pashtun Protection Movement — has openly defied the military in ways the country has seldom seen.
Its leaders say innocent Pashtuns have been killed or abducted by security forces searching for militants, and that the judicial system has failed to stop them.
“When those people who are supposed to maintain law and order and ensure people’s safety instead pursue unlawful activities, it only increases the anarchy. It gives a signal to society that everything is broken,” said Asad Iqbal Butt, vice chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group. “Where does this country stand? Where should citizens go for justice or protection?”
Missing persons cases in particular have been a central election topic, despite the military’s efforts to keep them out of the national discourse. Still, national parties fearful of the military’s power have been reluctant to publicize the issue.
Mr. Butt’s organization estimates there are some 4,000 missing people across Pakistan.
That number includes people from smaller religious and ethnic minorities, like the Shia, Baloch and Sindhi, which have been buoyed by the Pashtun movement.
Pashtuns are the largest minority in Pakistan, making up about 15 percent of the country’s 200 million people and filling the ranks of the military and government, which activists say gives them some protection. Although the census did not provide an ethnic breakdown, by some estimates, about four million Pashtuns live in Karachi.
The unity among Pakistan’s array of minorities over a single issue — their missing — has undermined the military’s strategy of stoking tensions among them, candidates say.
“What the P.T.M. has done is make this a mainstream issue, and that’s because the Pashtuns have the numbers,” said Mohammed Jibran Nasir, 31, who is running as an independent for a seat in Karachi.
Mr. Nasir is not Pashtun but has campaigned against police brutality.
“The P.T.M.’s mainstreaming this issue has taken away the narrative of the state,” he said, referring to the official version of events in cases like Mr. Mehsud’s.
That newfound boldness and unity was on display in Karachi late last month during a visit by Pakistan’s chief justice, Mian Saqib Nisar. He was confronted by dozens of people demanding to know whether loved ones were alive or dead, accusing security forces of grabbing them months or years ago.
The families tussled with the police at Karachi’s Supreme Court, leaving Justice Nisar visibly stunned, unaccustomed to civilians openly challenging Pakistan’s security forces.
A Shia woman slipped through the security cordon, ran up to the chief justice and slammed her fists on his dais, demanding to know the fate of her brother, missing since November 2016. The justice said coolly that if she hadn’t been a woman, he would have had her locked up.
Sensing how momentous the Pashtun movement could become, Pakistan’s media outlets began reporting on it earlier this year, only to be threatened by the military themselves.
Journalists from a number of newspapers and television stations say they have been called by security forces and told not to report on the movement, in an effort to stop it from spreading. Most complied.
Two influential news outlets that did not — the Karachi newspaper Dawn and the television channel Geo News — were censored by the military and lost advertisers who cited military pressure.
Zaffar Abbas, the editor of Dawn, said the last time the intimidation against his newspaper was this severe was in 1991, when he was a reporter covering fissures within the M.Q.M. party. Members of the group surrounded Dawn’s headquarters and burned the newspapers stacked inside delivery vans, as the government stood by and did nothing.
“The violence that has consumed Karachi is the result of how the city has been ignored nationally,” Mr. Abbas said, before contemplating the recent attempts to suppress grievances against security forces. “And it will return.”