Karachi: Political Territories & Gang Wars

A Rich City. Three Political Parties, And A Battle For Extortion Money. Welcome To Pakistan’s Failed Democracy.


Actually, the best way of looking at it is to understand that this is one of those unique [examples] in the way democracy really acts itself out in a developing country like Pakistan where democratic institutions and traditions are not very rooted. Basically, what you have here is a coalition government in Pakistan with three parties and those three parties simply cannot live together, yet they have to sustain the coalition government. So, what they are doing is that they are acting out the differences in a violent way in the country’s largest city which is also the economic hub of the country.

Basically, this is a turf war; Karachi is a very lucrative city, it is the main seaport of the country and it is a rich city, and any political party – this is the common thinking among the political parties here – any political party controlling the city as in controlling the local government and controlling the street power would have immense riches in terms of the taxes collected from the city, both official taxes and unofficial, by which I mean many of these political parties actually have militant wings and they intimidate traders and businessmen into paying sort of protection fee. So, this is basically a very lucrative city in that way. Now, you have a government in Pakistan, which is led by President Asif Zardari and he is sitting atop this government, but there are three political parties in this government and three of them are actually battling it out in Pakistan’s largest city.

Each one of these political parties, known by their acronyms as the PPP, Mr. Zardari’s or Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s party, and then the ANP, and the MQM, the three of them basically maintain militant armed wings. They are battling out their political differences and, of course, the main victim is the people of the city itself. Of course, you read many reports in the media, some say this is an ethnic war because each one of these three political parties claims to represent a certain language group in the city; some people say this is a crime mafia war which is also partially true – both of these interpretations are correct in certain ways but they do not really interpret or explain the reality.

The crime mafia, the criminal gangs are just an offshoot; the ethnic interpretation is incorrect because it is not necessarily that language groups or ethnic groups really consider each one of these there political parties as their sole representative and that may not be the case. The political parties claim that they represent certain language groups but the people belonging to those language groups have not really elected these parties to be their sole ‘linguistic representatives’. So, it is really complicated in that sense, but to understand it in its very simple form it is basically the three political parties fighting out for their own vested interests in the city, it is a lucrative city, and each one of these political parties, although claiming to be a democratic party, maintains armed wings that are very professional, well-armed, with the snipers, with actually many militant forces that are deployed to counter the competition.


But, with the violence rising, why wouldn’t the army get involved just to quell the unrest?Actually the Pakistani army is in a bind right now. Of course, the army was in power for almost nine years of President Pervez Musharraf’s government and he was also the army chief. So, theoretically the army left the control of the government only three and a half years ago, in early 2008, when the current democratic government was elected. So, the army is avoiding interference right now for two or three reasons.

One is that the army knows that if it gets involved, it may have to really act very tough with political parties and this would actually mean a direct confrontation between the military and the political establishment of the country which could ultimately lead to the downfall of this nascent democratic experiment – that is number one. Number two, the Pakistani military may not be interested right now to see the downfall of the democratic experiment, of the democratic government because I think there is an understanding now within the military that the Pakistani voters, the Pakistani people need to understand and test to the fullest extent possible the political leaders that they have voted for. In a way, it might sound cynical but there is an interpretation or an explanation that the generals of Pakistan now want the Pakistani people to [test] the full potential of the political leaders of the country and sort of undermine their chances of being reelected again in the future and hopefully pave the way for a new political dispensation, new faces in future elections.

So, the military overall is reluctant to get involved right now. It is a dire situation, of course, it may not be as dire as some of the political assessments, it will not lead to a sort of civil war in Pakistan or the downfall and disintegration of the country or anything of that sort, but what is happening, what it is really doing is really hurting the Pakistani economy and that is, of course, a very serious issue. The military, I think, is weighing both things – how far can we wait and how much damage the Pakistani economy can sustain because a large, economic part of the country is paralyzed because of these political parties – that is on the one hand. On the other hand, if the military gets involved, could it lead actually to the downfall of this democratic experiment and the military seizing power again? Surprisingly, the Pakistani media is full of commentaries now asking the military to intervene, they just had it with this political dispensation, with this political experiment and people are pretty much convinced that the political elite of the country is incapable of running it in these tough times.


So, is the military going to intervene? There are no signs as of today that military is going to intervene.The political government and the politicians are aware of the fact that if the military gets involved, it may actually have to strike at the power, at the heart of the power of these political parties. So, these parties would like to avoid in a way seeing the military getting involved, but the public anger is growing, both with the military and the politicians, and the military mainly, because it is not interfering, people want it to interfere. I am personally not sure if it is a good idea right now, I think the Pakistani people – it may sound cynical – need to test to the fullest extent the capability of these politicians and if they are really truly discredited, they should be discredited finally and permanently, we do not want to see a situation where the army gets involved in Karachi for a couple of months and then the politicians and the media start again saying, well, the army is using heavy-handed tactics, this is wrong and military should not do that, and then all of this returning to a turf war between the politicians and the military and further destabilizing the country. I think that is an eventuality that we should avoid.

Pakistan Ideology