Pakistan's Big City Hopes Election Brings Peace

In the southern port city of Karachi, bunkers filled with paramilitary troops and bullet-marked buildings remain a powerful reminder of the city's recent bout with violence.

National and local elections are planned for Feb. 3, and the city's most powerful political group - accused of leading a violent campaign against its opponents - has announced it will contest seats in both the federal legislature in Islamabad and the provincial legislature of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital.

The Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) - an ethnic, Karachi-based party - hopes to win a substantial number of the seats in both elections, which would position it to become a coalition partner in either the next federal or provincial government. The results of the vote will certainly be scrutinized by government officials and diplomats looking for signs of the group's strength after the recent crackdown on them. The MQM will vie for Karachi's 13 constituencies in the 217-seat federal parliament in Islamabad and also for 28 constituencies in the provincial election.

Monday's elections come almost three months after the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was dismissed after being charged with corruption, economic mismanagement, and sponsoring police hit squads. In a ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal and ordered elections to go ahead, ending the former prime minister's battle to be returned to power without another vote. Recent opinion polls indicate that Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party was trailing the opposition Pakistan Muslim League.

In Karachi, many analysts say that the outcome of the elections and the MQM's future could mark the most important event for the city's 13 million people, most of whom have born the brunt of the violence.

The MQM champions Karachi's Urdu-speaking migrants or mohajirs, who arrived from India when Pakistan was created 50 years ago. The group has led a 12-year campaign seeking more rights, better representation in parliament, and more jobs for its young people.

But the movement was eventually surrounded by controversy when it was accused by the government of ordering attacks on its own political dissidents. Stories of extortion from Karachi's rich businessmen and aristocrats to fund the MQM's activities became common in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1995, Karachi's worst year of violence claimed up to 2,000 lives during armed encounters between the MQM and its rivals, government officials say. That bloodshed finally prompted then-Prime Minister Bhutto to act. A large-scale clampdown by police and paramilitary troops has helped restore relative calm, and the MQM's branch of armed militants seems to have been destroyed.

Today, the city streets bustle with energy and shoppers stay out late.

Many analysts say that Karachi's troubles are not just the fault of the MQM but also the result of a complete breakdown in infrastructure and the city's unplanned growth. The city, Pakistan's largest and its financial center, is awash with drugs and guns brought in from neighboring Afghanistan.

"Karachi's problems are not just the work of the MQM. We are faced with so many other issues that are vital for urban areas," says a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A breakdown in essential services, such as public transport, housing, water, gas, and electricity, has added to the long list of problems. In addition, several years of growing violence has damaged the economy. New investments have shrunk, and jobs are increasingly few.

"Karachi's biggest problem is not just the MQM," says Ghazi Salahuddin, a leading newspaper commentator based in Karachi. "It [Karachi] doesn't have what is needed for an urban area. There's growing congestion, pollution, and virtually no enforcement of zoning laws."

According to Mr. Salahuddin, the MQM is really an expression of popular discontent with circumstances in the city.

For its part, the MQM says the government needs to revive the city's local government. Karachi's elected city council, dominated by MQM members, was abolished five years ago when the federal government wanted to take direct control of local affairs to curb violence.

"Local municipal elections must be held so that the mohajirs are given the right to solve Karachi's problems," says Shoaib Bukhari, a senior MQM leader. "For us, it's the injustice [toward] the mohajirs that is the biggest problem."

Despite the political leverage that the MQM is bound to win next week, and its possible inclusion in a coalition government, it isn't clear if its new role would mark an end to violence in the city.

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