Pakistani party leader arrested in London. What does it mean for his Karachi home?

Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement Party, was arrested by British police on charges of money laundering, sending his hometown of Karachi into a tailspin.

Athar Hussain/Reuters
A supporter of Pakistan's Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) political party holds a poster of his leader Altaf Hussain as they gather at the party's headquarters in Karachi, Pakistan, June 3, 2014.

The arrest of one of Pakistan’s most powerful politicians in London Tuesday sent his hometown Karachi into a tailspin as businesses closed early, traffic jammed, and reports of scattered gunfire emerged amid fears of political violence.

News spread quickly that Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) Party that dominates Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and commercial capital, was arrested by British police for suspected money laundering. Mr. Hussain runs the MQM Party from London, where he has lived since 1992. He was granted political asylum there after surviving an assassination attempt in Pakistan.

The chaos underscores the degree to which the MQM controls Karachi and raises questions about what impact Hussain’s arrest will have on the city of 20 million that generates 30 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product.

After initial reports broke in the early afternoon local time, offices and stores closed early, exams at Karachi University and several other schools were canceled, and Pakistan Railways temporarily halted service in the area, Pakistan’s Express Tribune reports. The Karachi stock exchange fell by as much as 2.2 percent, and scattered gunfire was heard around the city, Bloomberg reports.

The shutdown in Karachi stems from past patterns of political violence that arose when MQM was threatened, says Javed Jabbar, a former senator and federal minister from Karachi. “In extreme cases of tension there have been attacks in public places, burning of cars, attacks on those who don’t fall in line on [MQM] calls for strikes, and there’s a chance of that happening,” Mr. Jabbar says.

MQM party leaders in Karachi asked followers to restrain from violence and called for a peaceful sit-in in downtown Karachi this evening.

Who is Altaf Hussain and why is he so powerful?

Hussain’s name may be overshadowed by the better known military strongmen who have dominated Pakistan’s past, but there’s no doubt that he’s one of the most powerful figures in Pakistan, despite his years in Britain.

“‘Distance does not matter,’ reads an inscription on a monument near Mr. Hussain's deserted former house in Karachi, where his name evokes both fear and favor,” The New York Times reported last year.

The son of an office worker at a Karachi mill, Hussain turned to politics after studying medicine at the University of Karachi. He powerfully channeled his middle class background and status as a Muhajir, the term for Pakistanis whose families moved from India during partition in 1947, by breaking the tradition of politicians as wealthy elites. He successfully gave voice to the aspirations and frustrations of Karachi’s middle to lower-middle class, mainly Muhajirs.

What is the MQM?

Hussain founded the MQM in 1984, which grew out of an activist group for Muhajirs that came together while he was a student at Karachi University, according to his biography on the MQM website. 

Known as a “kingmaker party," the MQM has worked with each of Pakistan’s main political parties and the military government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. “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,” Lahore-based political analyst Rasul Baksh Rais told the The Christian Science Monitor's Ben Arnoldy in 2011.

Anatol Lieven, professor of international relations at King’s College, London and author of Pakistan, A Hard Country, describes the MQM in his book as “Pakistan’s only truly modern mass political party,” and “an ethnic political movement which emerged through violence and still intermittently uses great violence against its enemies.” 

MQM has unsuccessfully tried in recent years to establish itself as a national party.

A key factor distinguishing MQM from other political parties is its mastery of local organization, says Jabbad. “At the drop of the hat, in 24 hours they can mobilize hundreds of thousands to turn up.”

What’s next?

The arrest raises questions about the future of MQM's control of Pakistan's economic hub, and one of its most violent cities. The party is well-entrenched, but revolves around a near cult of personality for Hussain. 

Party leaders have had time to prepare: there have been signs for months that an arrest could occur. British officials have been investigating Hussein in connection to the murder of a former MQM loyalist, and last year launched investigations into charges of money laundering and inciting violence in Pakistan, The New York Times reports. Even last year, Hussain was worried about his future: 

The scrutiny has visibly rattled Mr. Hussain, who recently warned supporters that his arrest may be imminent. And in Karachi, it has raised a previously unthinkable question: Is the end near for the untouchable political machine that has been the city's linchpin for three decades? 

''This is a major crisis,'' said Irfan Husain, the author of ''Fatal Faultlines,'' a book about Pakistan's relationship with the United States. ''The party has been weakened, and Altaf Hussain is being criticized like never before.''

Party leaders are likely to strongly rally behind Hussain in the days to come, Jabbad says, to demonstrate solidarity and cohesion. “But as time goes by, depending on what happens,” a leadership challenge is possible.  

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