‘He needs our votes’: In Karachi, Pakistan’s election tests old loyalties | Elections

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Karachi, Pakistan – These are the fourth general elections I have covered in Pakistan over the past 16 years. In a city where colors, music and ethnicities change from neighborhood to neighborhood, all the previous elections have been confusing.

This one has been the same: chaotic and confusing. I started the day by voting at my neighborhood polling station. This is something I’ve always struggled with: Should journalists vote?

Then, as I spoke from Pakistan’s largest city – home to 22 seats, more than the entire province of Balochistan – on Thursday, I realized that not only was Pakistan’s democracy under test but also the city’s loyalty.

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had won 14 National Assembly seats in the 2018 election from Karachi, breaking voters away from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which has traditionally dominated the city’s political landscape. With the MQM split into several factions since 2016, its displaced voters have found solace in Khan’s party, from the affluent southern areas of Karachi all the way to the north of the city.

I was standing outside my polling station in Clifton, almost 1km (0.6 miles) away from Bilawal House, which is the Karachi home of the Bhutto-Zardari family, which heads the Pakistan People’s Party. The PPP has historically been the dominant political force in Sindh province, whose capital is Karachi.

However, on Thursday, most of the people streaming out to vote in this upscale part of Karachi were PTI supporters, many of them women who had stepped out at 8am for to be among the first to cast their ballot.

50-year-old N Tariq, who did not want to share her full name, said she came first in the morning to make sure she caught the voters in good spirits and hoped the voting process would be smooth. smooth and without a long time. queue

“I am voting for the person who is in trouble right now. He needs our votes”, said Tariq. She laughed as she said this, referring to Khan, who received several sentences in a range of cases last week.

My next stop was one of the largest polling stations in Defense Level 4, a cantonment housing area, run by Pakistan’s powerful military, which Khan’s supporters blame for ousting the party – yes its leaders in jail, and candidates can’t even use the party. a symbol

Upscale neighbourhood, the polling station was already getting busy – but it missed the festive atmosphere of the 2018 election, when I had spent a few hours outside this centre.

By this time, my cellular and data connection had been cut and I could no longer contact anyone. As a native Karachite, loss of cellular connection is not new to me but this was a day when law and order could be compromised and it was very transient.

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

I went to Lyari, a PPP stronghold. As I drove through Cheel Chowk at Lyari – the noisy and congested area, where gang wars had been going on for decades, was very calm. It was so quiet that it made me uncomfortable.

The banners and flags went up but there was no music, no dancing, no blaring of Dilan Teer Bija – the PPP’s viral anthem.

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

Rehmat, 75, and Kulsom, 60, came together to the polling station – where I was not allowed to enter despite being accredited. Kulsom said she was only voting for the PPP because it was the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.

Left: Kulsom, right, Rehmat, residents of Lyari [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
Left: Kulsom, right, Rehmat, residents of Lyari [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

“Bilwalal is her son and they have given us everything. Water, gas, and brought peace to this area, PPP has given us everything. What else do we need? I will always stand by PPP till my last breath,” said Kulsom. She was referring to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the 36-year-old leader of PPP.

Rehmat said that her children do not have jobs but the PPP is also her choice.

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

“They work for us and they take care of us – how can we not love the Bhuttos? “, she said.

This was not the feeling shared by everyone in Lyari. First-time voter Mohammed Yazdan, 18, said promises were made before the elections but not fulfilled.

First time voter, Mohammed Yazdan [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
First time voter Mohammed Yazdan [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

“I am voting for Imran Khan, PTI, because the working people are always dragged down by them. Look at what they did to him. I will continue to support him.”

I went into the heart of the city, in the old Golimar area, a working class neighborhood. Small pockets of Tehreek-e-Labbaik, MQM and Jamaat-e-Islami supporters were on the streets helping voters.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik, a far-right party formed in 2017, builds support by focusing its politics around religion. Jamaat-e-Islami, which is also a right-wing religious party, is among the most organized political forces in Pakistan, with a charity wing, the Al Khidmat Foundation.

I found that voters were reluctant to admit that they were going to vote for PTI-affiliated candidates who would have to face independents.

One female voter who wished to remain anonymous said: “I am sitting in the MQM tent to sort out my vote numbers but my vote is always for the leader of the country whom I cannot name. I wanted to come today as a polling agent but we were told that there would be security issues for those associated with PTI candidates.”

In the Pakistan Workers’ Cooperative Housing Society, an old neighborhood known locally by the acronym PECHS, one of the largest polling stations is a college campus that has an unpaved dirt entrance and steps to goes down to the main courtyard. After crossing, voters had to climb up to the first and second floors to access polling booths, making the center difficult to reach for the elderly and people with limited ability to walk and climb stairs. .

Dr. Raza, a long-time voter at PECHS, has repeatedly complained to the election commission that his booth is not accessible to the elderly or people with disabilities. [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
Dr. Raza, a long-time voter at PECHS, has repeatedly complained to the Election Commission that his booth is not accessible to the elderly or people with disabilities. [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

Dr. Raza, 60 who lives in this constituency and only shared his last name, said that this college is always known as a polling station. He said he had written to the Election Commission of Pakistan many times asking them to reconsider the venue because of its difficulty for those with physical limitations.

“Whether these are fair or not, it is my duty to show. But not everyone can. This polling station is not accessible to everyone,” he said.

In Gulshan-e-Iqbal, near the city’s biggest cricket venue, the National Stadium, voters at polling booths on a school campus complained that they had been there since 8am but no election commission staff had been there. arrive only at 11 am and that, too, without a ballot. papers.

The queue went long around the building and it was almost not moving. As I moved through the crowd, at least eight men and women jumped out of their places in line to ask me to report what was happening in the that and how voters were effectively urged to cast their votes.

The queue snakes around the Gulshan-e-Iqbal polling booth in Karachi on Thursday, February 8, 2024 [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
The queue snakes around the Gulshan-e-Iqbal polling booth in Karachi on Thursday, February 8, 2024 [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

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

I went to a place full of apartment buildings next to Gulistan-e-Johar. Although it was a public holiday, most people were getting on with their daily work. Shops were open, daily wage workers and painters were waiting to be contracted and shops were busy selling flowers and street food.

At a polling station inside an apartment building, the queue for women moved quickly and Rehana Razi, 81, was one of those lining up to cast her vote.

“I’m older than Pakistan,” Razi said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’m here to vote and everything has been very orderly. It’s a mystery who I’m here to vote for.”

Rehana Razi, a senior citizen voter in Gulistan-e-Johar [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
Rehana Razi, a senior citizen voter in Gulistan-e-Johar, Karachi [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

Zohaib Khan, 36, was waiting outside the polling station with his little daughter, while his wife got ready to vote. He had voted in Malir, over 14.5km (9 miles) away but his wife was taken to the polling station in Gulistan-e-Johar.

“So 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 they can do real work for Karachi,” he said.

The electorate of Karachi has clearly changed. However, the poorest areas of the city are still the same as they were decades ago. Water, cooking gas, a cleaner city, proper sewage – these are still the main concerns of the city of 17 million people.

Will these ever be dealt with? And in a city as complex as this, can any party really claim Karachi as their own?

Zohaib Khan, a voter from Malir who had traveled to Gulistan-e-Johar [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
Zohaib Khan and his daughter outside Gulistan-e-Johar polling booth [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
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