Pakistan’s financial hub of Karachi elected a mayor this week but the only problem is he is in jail. Senior Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader Waseem Akhtar was arrested last month on sedition and terrorism charges.
Akhtar has vowed to run Pakistan’s largest and richest city from his prison cell after winning the mayoral poll on Wednesday. The former minister and parliamentarian won by a landslide with 196 of the total 294 votes cast by municipal authorities.
His MQM colleague, Arshad Vohra, was elected deputy mayor in the final phase of the local government elections in Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital. The MQM swept Karachi’s local government elections last December, but elected members could not take office because of legal challenges that prevented them from casting their vote.
Akhtar said he would ask the chief minister of Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, to allow him to open an office in jail and make “new rules” so that people can access him. His lawyer, Mahfooz Yar Khan, said the new mayor would run Karachi via video link for the whole five-year term of office if necessary.
Part of the problem remains the fluctuating fortunes of the MQM, which has controlled Karachi for decades. Earlier this week, MQM leader Farooq Sattar said the party will no longer take directions from London – a reference to party founder Altaf Hussain, who lives in self-exile there.
The move came after Hussain’s controversial speech on Monday in which he described Pakistan as a “cancer for the entire world ” and criticised the government and the army. He also attacked the media for a blackout of the MQM’s activities, following which party supporters attacked media offices and destroyed public and private property.
Hussain soon apologised for his statements to the army chief, but a treason case was filed against him. Following this, the MQM moved to disassociate itself from Hussain, part of a deal understood to have been made between the party and the army. Under this, Hussain will no longer be head of the party officially.
Hussain’s posters were removed overnight from party strongholds in Karachi. His posters were torn and lying on streets in MQM strongholds, including Nine Zero, Mukka Chowk and Jinnah Ground, media reported.
The MQM remains under a cloud, say analysts, who believe the latest developments are temporary moves to appease the powers that be. “Make no mistake, nothing is done in the MQM without the approval of Altaf Hussain,” said one analyst.
Observers believe Akhtar too was elected with Hussain’s blessings.
Akhtar arrived in a police armoured vehicle at the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation building to cast his vote in the final round of elections on Wednesday.
Talking to reporters after voting, he sounded reconciliatory when he called for cooperation with the Pakistan People’s Party-led Sindh government for the betterment of Karachi.
He offered to work with Pakistan Rangers Director General Maj Gen Bilal Akbar to improve security, saying the MQM respects the troops’ sacrifices in maintaining law and order. “I need guidance from the DG Rangers and Sindh IG. We want to eliminate those who are bent upon disturbing peace in this city,” he said.
Politicians can govern from police custody under Pakistani law but it is not clear how Akhtar will run the city from his prison cell. The courts are not expected to release him before he takes his oath on August 30.
The MQM has dominated Karachi for decades but a paramilitary crackdown since 2013 has undermined its power base. It draws support mainly from ‘mohajirs’ or Urdu-speaking people who migrated from India at the time of Partition.
Security forces have also arrested scores of MQM members in the past year and accused them of torture, murder and racketeering. MQM denies any link to crime and accuses paramilitary forces of a series of extrajudicial killings of its members.