‘He needs our votes’: Pakistani elections in Karachi test old loyalties | elections

Karachi Pakistan – This is the fourth general election I have covered in Pakistan in the past 16 years. In a city where colors, music and ethnicities change from neighborhood to neighborhood, every previous election has been confusing.

This was just the same: chaotic and confusing. I started today by voting at the polling station in my neighborhood. It’s something I’ve always struggled with: Should journalists vote?

And then, as I reported from Pakistan’s largest city – which has 22 seats, more than the entire province of Balochistan – I realized on Thursday that it was not just Pakistan’s democracy that was on trial, but the city’s loyalties as well.

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf The PTI won 14 National Assembly seats in the 2018 elections from Karachi, alienating voters from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which has traditionally dominated the city’s political scene. As the MQM has split into multiple factions since 2016, its disillusioned voters have found solace in Khan’s party, from Karachi’s affluent southern areas to the city’s north.

I was standing outside my polling station in Clifton, just a kilometer from Bilawal House, the Karachi home of Bhutto Zardari’s family, which leads the Pakistan People’s Party. Historically, the Pakistan Peoples Party has been the most dominant political force in Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital.

However, on Thursday, most of the people who came out to vote in this upscale part of Karachi were PTI supporters, many of them women who came out at 8 a.m. to be among the first to cast their votes.

N. Tariq, 50, who did not want to reveal her full name, said she came first thing in the morning to make sure she caught the attention of polling staff while they were in a good mood and hoping there would be early elections. Voting process It will be smooth and without long queues.

“I’m voting for the person who’s in trouble right now. He needs our votes,” Tariq said. She laughed as she said it, referring to Khan, who received multiple sentences in a range of cases last week.

My next stop was one of the largest polling stations in the 4th Defense Zone, a residential area run by Pakistan’s powerful military, which Khan’s supporters blame for derailing the party — its leaders are in prison, and candidates can’t even use the party. Code.

The polling station, an upscale neighborhood, was already crowded — but it lacked the festive atmosphere of the 2018 election when I spent a few hours outside.

By then, my cell and data connection had been cut off and I could no longer contact anyone. As a Karachi native, losing cellular connectivity is nothing new to me, but this was a day when law and order could be compromised and it was very worrying.

Lyari, a stronghold of the Pakistan People's Party, was eerily quiet on Thursday, February 8, 2024 (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)
Lyari, a stronghold of the Pakistan People’s Party, was eerily quiet on Thursday, February 8, 2024 (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)

I headed towards Lyari, the stronghold of the Pakistan Peoples Party. As I drove through Lyari’s Chil Chowk, the usually bustling and crowded area, home to decades-long gang wars, was eerily quiet. He was so quiet it made me uncomfortable.

Flags and banners were raised, but there was no music, no dancing, and no banging of Dilan Ter Bija – the widely used anthem of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

As I started passing through the different polling stations, I came across many elderly women voters.

Rahmat (75 years old) and Kulsum (60 years old) came together to the polling station, where I was not allowed to enter despite having an accreditation card. Kulsum said she was voting for the Pakistan Peoples Party only because it was the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.

Left: Kulsum, right, Rahmat, residents of Lyari (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)
Left: Kulsum, right, Rahmat, residents of Lyari (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)

“Bilwal is her son and they have given us everything. Water, gas, bringing peace to this region, the public-private partnership has given us everything. What else do we need? I will always stand by the PPP until my last breath,” Kulsoom said. She was referring to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 36-year-old leader of the Pakistan People’s Party.

Rehmat said her children do not have jobs, but the PPP is her choice too.

She voted for Bilawal’s grandfather – former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – in 1970, then she voted for Benazir, and now she is determined to vote for Bilawal.

“They work for us and take care of us, so how can we not love the Bhutto family?” she said.

This was not the sentiment shared by everyone in Lyari. Muhammad Yazdan, 18, a first-time voter, said that promises are made before elections but are never fulfilled.

First-time voter, Muhammad Yazdan (Alia Chughati/Al Jazeera)
First-time voter Muhammad Yazdan (Alia Chughati/Al Jazeera)

“I am voting for Imran Khan, PTI, because those who work are always pulled down by them. Look what they did to him I will continue to support him.”

I went to the heart of the city, in the old Jolimar district, which is a working-class neighborhood. There were small pockets of supporters of the Libbaik Movement, the MQM and the Jamaat-e-Islami in the streets to help voters.

Move to BeckIt is a far-right party founded in 2017, and it mobilizes support by centering its policies around religion. The Jamaat-e-Islami, also a right-wing religious party, is among the most organized political forces in Pakistan, and has a charitable wing, the Khidmat Foundation.

I found that voters were reluctant to admit that they would vote for PTI candidates who had to compete as independents.

One voter who wished to remain anonymous said: “I am sitting in the MQM tent counting my poll numbers but my vote is always for the leader of the nation who I cannot name. I wanted to come today to be a polling agent but we were told there would be security issues.” For those affiliated with PTI candidates.

In the Pakistan Employees Cooperative Housing Society, an old neighborhood known locally by its acronym PECHS, one of the largest polling stations is a campus with an unpaved dirt entrance and steps leading to the main courtyard. After crossing it, voters had to climb to the first and second floors to reach the polling stations, making access to the place difficult for the elderly and those with limited ability to walk and climb stairs.

Dr Reza, a long-time PECHS voter, who has repeatedly complained to the Election Commission that his booth is not accessible to senior citizens or people with disabilities (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)
Dr Raza, a long-time PECHS voter, has repeatedly complained to the Election Commission about the inaccessibility of his booth for the elderly or people with disabilities (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)

This college is always designated as a polling station,” said Dr Raza, 60, who lives in this constituency and gave only his last name. He said he had written to the Election Commission of Pakistan several times asking them to reconsider the site due to its inaccessibility for people with physical limitations.

“Whether it’s fair or not, it’s my job to show up. But not everyone can. This polling station is not affordable for everyone,” he said.

In Gulshan-e-Iqbal, near the National Stadium, the city’s largest cricket ground, voters at polling stations on the school campus complained that they had been there since 8 a.m., but Election Commission staff arrived only at 11 a.m., and that too without a ballot. Leaves.

The long line snaked around the building and was barely moving. As I moved through the crowd, at least eight men and women jumped from their places in line to ask me to report on what was happening there and how voters were being discouraged from casting their ballots.

A queue winds around the polling station at Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Karachi on Thursday, February 8, 2024 (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)
A queue winds around the polling station at Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Karachi on Thursday, February 8, 2024 (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)

It was difficult to get through the crowd, and the boss, who was sitting in an empty room on the same floor, told me that there was nothing he could do, and that the staff had arrived late.

I headed to an area full of residential complexes next to Golestan Johar. Although it was an official holiday, most people were going about their daily business. Shops were open, there were daily wage workers and painters waiting to be hired, and shops were busy selling flowers and street food.

At a polling station inside a residential complex, the line of women moved quickly, and Rehana Al-Razi, 81, was one of those queuing to cast her vote.

“I am older than Pakistan,” Al-Razi said, closing her eyes. “I’m here to vote and everything was very organized. It’s a secret who I’m here to vote for.”

Rehana Razi, a senior citizen voter in Golestan Johar (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)
Rehana Razi, a senior voter in Gulistan Jawhar, Karachi (Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera)

Zohaib Khan, 36, was waiting outside the polling station with his young daughter, while his wife lined up to cast her vote. He voted in Malir, more than 14.5 kilometers (9 miles) away, but his wife was allocated a polling station in Golestan-e-Jawhar.

“We have come all the way here because we have to vote for our PTI candidates. We want PTI to get more time to prove that it can do real work for Karachi,” he said.

Clearly, voters in Karachi have changed. However, the city’s slums remain as they were decades ago. Water, cooking gas, a clean city, proper sanitation – these remain central concerns for the city of 17 million people.

Will these matters be addressed? In a city of this complexity, can any party truly claim Karachi as its own?

Sohaib Khan, the voter from Malir who had to travel to Golestan Johar (Alia Chughati/Al Jazeera)
Sohaib Khan and his daughter outside the polling station in Golestan Johar (Alia Chughati/Al Jazeera)

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