Thursday 5 June 2014

Pakistani politics: East of Edgware

Nguồn tin:

Altaf Hussain: King of Karachi

LONDON has a long tradition of hosting Pakistani politicians who have left their homeland in a hurry. The usual form is for ousted leaders to set up shop in one of the city’s posher neighbourhoods, rail against the incumbent regime in Islamabad and head home in triumph when the time is right. The formula worked well for Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (though it failed for Pervez Musharraf, a former dictator, now embroiled in a treason trial after foolishly returning last year).

It has proved harder for Pakistan’s colourful cast of politicians to remain in London while also wielding power back home. Altaf Hussain, the founder and leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), is the only one to have done so. He claimed asylum in Britain in 1992 at a time when the Pakistani government of the day was cracking down hard on the MQM. He opted never to return, even when the political winds changed and the MQM was able to resume control over Karachi, a mega-city whose population almost equals Australia’s. He runs the MQM, and therefore Karachi, from the suburban splendour of Edgware in north-west London, from where he regularly addresses rallies of supporters in Karachi by phone.

Critics have often accused the British government of turning a blind eye to the deeds of the MQM’s illegal armed wing, a group of thugs and killers that dominates Karachi’s vast criminal economy. Mr Hussain himself has been accused of involvement in dozens of murders. Many Pakistanis believe Britain did not investigate the party because the avowedly secular MQM promised to help Britain’s security services combat Islamist terrorism.

Now, though, Mr Hussain’s London-based activities have taken a knock: on June 3rd British police arrested him at his London home on suspicion of money-laundering. That followed recent raids on his home and on the MQM’s offices that yielded wads of cash. The detention had an immediate impact in Karachi. Though appeals for calm kept destruction of property to a minimum, most people immediately rushed home, shutting down the city.

The MQM owes its pre-eminence in the city to a devoted support base made up of Mohajirs—the Urdu-speaking Muslim migrants who moved to the city from India at the time of partition in 1947—and their descendants. As the country’s most disciplined political machine, the MQM has sustained its hold over politics in Karachi and other cities in Sindh province. At times of shaky national coalitions the MQM has been able to extract juicy concessions from the government.

But in recent years the party’s power has been undermined by an influx of ethnic Pushtuns from Pakistan’s troubled north-west. Last year’s election also saw the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party led by Imran Khan, a former cricketer, make significant inroads. And with the government in Islamabad enjoying an overall majority in parliament, the MQM has lost much of its leverage.

London, too, had become a less congenial place for Mr Hussain. The stabbing to death in 2010 of Imran Farooq, a senior MQM activist with whom Mr Hussain had fallen out, prompted the Metropolitan Police to launch the investigation into his affairs that led to his arrest.

Party stalwarts have long been worried about the MQM’s future in Pakistan. Senior leaders are alarmed and embarrassed by Mr Hussain’s increasingly erratic behaviour, although few dare to speak even privately about it. Many believe that, should Mr Hussain end up in a British prison cell, it would be only a matter of time before the MQM and its armed wing split into factions. “Karachi is a very profitable business empire run by militant groups,” says a senior police official. “When the big don is taken away there will be rivalry among the smaller dons.”

A vicious turf war is the last thing Karachi needs. The country’s business capital is already plagued by political killings, soaring street crime and the Talibanisation of its Pushtun neighbourhoods.

With so much at stake the party has been scrambling to avoid disaster. But much of this has involved trying to convince its army of supporters that this is all just a wicked British conspiracy. If the case never gets to trial, Mr Hussain’s brush with the law could strengthen his position back in Karachi as a heroic leader. But if a long prison sentence beckons, his exile may follow a more traditional route: denied both home and power.

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