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Battleground Karachi

After years of wrangling, the city of Karachi is finally scheduled to get what every serious analyst of the city’s problems has always argued it needs the most: local government.

The elections being held today have the potential to be a turning point in the recent history of the city, but of course much depends on the outcome, and how well the framework established by the Sindh Local Government Act of 2013 works. Much also depends on how the members of the provincial assembly view the new set-up and how much cooperation is extended to the nascent democratic institutions about to be created.

The long journey towards a complete democracy will remain unfinished if the experiment begun today is suffocated tomorrow due to rivalries and suspicions. The city of Karachi has long suffered from dismal governance because it is run by the provincial assembly directly, and most of the members there appear to have neither roots nor stakes in the city.

Today, the first step will be taken to rectify this great mismatch in expectations and incentives that has underlain the city’s descent into an ungovernable mess, but much hinges on how things go from here.

The first challenge facing the new institutions about to be born will be in the electoral outcome. These are the first party-based local government elections held under a democratic dispensation, and how various parties emerge from the exercise will be a closely watched event.

The city’s politics has long been dominated by a single fault line. There is the MQM with its secure vote bank, and there is everybody else. The non-MQM vote is considerable, but it is fragmented and has historically been impossible to pull together under a single banner. This is what explains the MQM’s dominance in the city’s electoral outcomes more than anything else. This election will, therefore, be closely watched to see how well the MQM fares in the context of the Karachi operation, which the party claims has targeted its workers disproportionately.

Equally important will be the functioning of the elected officials, and how far the provincial government extends its cooperation by allowing them to operate and by releasing the funds they need to do their work.

The experiment in local government under way in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has already been marred by allegations of favouritism in the release of funds, and it is worth noting that the SLGA 2013, amended further this year, grants the provincial government extensive powers to intervene in the affairs of the various councils, as well as control the release of funds.

If that power is misused to retain the provincial government’s power over the city, the experiment begun today could well be stillborn. The fact that a local government election is being held today is of far-reaching consequence for the city, but the real test still lies ahead.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2015