What is Pakistan's MQM?

The MQM is a kingmaker in Pakistani politics. Its withdrawal from the ruling coalition is seen by some as a move to 'quit a sinking ship early.'

Fareed Khan/AP
Soldiers of Pakistan's para military force stand guard as tension mounted after the target killing of a worker of Pakistan's ethnic political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement in Karachi, Pakistan, on Jan. 3. Pakistan's prime minister tried Monday to keep his ruling coalition in power after a key party MQM said it was defecting to the opposition, leaving the government without majority support in parliament.

The withdrawal of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) from the ruling coalition has stirred up more uncertainty about the longevity of Pakistan's current civilian government, one that has been both weak domestically but sympathetic to Washington's strategies for stabilizing the region.

As a kingmaker in Pakistani politics, the MQM has had a history of opportunism and appeals to the West for support, suggesting that both the United States and the current Pakistani leadership have cards to play in the days ahead.

"The MQM depends so much on the British and the Americans that it won't like to pull a government down that is an ally of the West," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political analyst based in Lahore. Yet if the MQM joins opposition parties in a no-confidence vote, it could potentially kick the ruling government out of power and trigger early elections.

The MQM started in 1984 as a party representing Muhajirs, a group of Pakistanis who moved into the country from present-day India during the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Many Muhajirs settled in the commercial capital of Karachi, now ruled by the MQM.

The MQM has made efforts to rebrand itself as a national party that transcends ethnic boundaries, but tensions with other ethnic groups have kept the party localized. It is the Pakistani parliament's fourth-largest party with 25 lawmakers in the 342-seat National Assembly, and its withdrawal leaves the ruling coalition with only 158 seats in parliament.

The party has teamed up at various points with both of the main political parties as well as the military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, helping it win powerful positions in Islamabad and secure its dominance in Karachi.

Given this history, the current government could yet win back the MQM. "They [the MQM] are very pragmatic, very opportunistic. They would like to make a deal with any party as long as they are able to retain power in Karachi" and maintain their strength in Sindh Province, says Dr. Rais.

The party does espouse secularism and economic liberalization, yet these issues do not appear to be at play in the decision to withdraw from the government, says Rais. Rather, the party is looking to "quit the sinking ship early," he says.

Since the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the MQM has consistently presented itself abroad as the West's best friend in Pakistan.

The group's extensive media arm reaches out to the foreign press to highlight counterterrorism successes in Karachi and warn of Islamic militant infiltration in the city. The port has remained a safe logistics hub for much of NATO's Afghanistan war supplies, despite frequent ethnic street violence that often involves MQM cadres as either instigators or victims.

The MQM's leader, Altaf Hussain, leads the party from exile in Britain where he was granted political asylum in 1992 after escaping an assassination attempt. A controversial agreement struck in 2007 under Musharraf known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance withdrew 72 legal cases against Mr. Hussain, including 31 for murder and 11 for attempted murder. But the Supreme Court struck down the controversial amnesty deal in December 2009.

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