The rapidly executed military coup of Tuesday 12 October 1999 marks a new, and even more unstable and tension-ridden period in Pakistan and the wider Asian sub-continent. The coup represents the possibility of further erosion of what little remains of the democratic rights of the masses. It will considerably increase tension in a region where two major powers (India and Pakistan) have recently acquired nuclear capability. In response to the news, the Indian army was put on full alert. It is Pakistan’s fourth period of military rule – in the 52 years of its existence Pakistan has seen 25 years of martial law. This latest coup reflects the complete bankruptcy and inability of the feudal and capitalist elites of the neo-colonial world to take society forward.
This is particularly the case in Pakistan where society has reached a dead-end. There is a fundamental crisis socially and economically; state institutions are undergoing a process of collapse; senior members of the bureaucracy use their positions to cream off millions of Rupees squandering the wealth of the country; national and regional government ministers treat their areas of responsibilities as personal fiefdoms filling posts with family and friends rather than those qualified to do the job; bribery is the only means by which anything gets done; the ruling elite is divided into squabbling factions; and religious and sectarian strife is on the rise encouraged by armed groups initially set up by the intelligence services which are now out of control. Capitalism and feudalism in Pakistan has created conditions which threaten a complete breakdown in society. Strong elements of chaos have entered the situation. It is the working class and poor peasantry which have paid the price for this. The poorest sections of society face a desperate situation. As a result the number of incidents of people dousing themselves with petrol and setting themselves alight has risen markedly in the last few months.
Socialists and activists internationally must oppose this military take-over which will be used to step up the economic exploitation of the Pakistani working class and poor peasantry and will lead to even worse social conditions. Events will show that the military are just as incapable of solving the searing economic, political and social problems facing the country as the corrupt politicians who have preceded them.
The beginning of the coup was signalled by the halting of broadcasts by Pakistan TV. This followed two bulletins reporting the sacking of Chief of army staff General Perves Musharraf, by the PML-N Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Simultaneously all airports, important government buildings, and the homes of senior politicians (including the PM’s residence) were surrounded by soldiers. National radio and TV stations were taken over by the military. All mobile phone networks and some international landlines were taken out of operation. Later on that evening General Musharraf announced the sacking of the Sharif government.
Nawaz Sharif’s right wing PML-N (Pakistani Muslim League – Nawaz) government was elected in January 1997 after the crushing defeat of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistani Peoples Party at the polls. There were massive hopes that Sharif would take action to end the disastrous conditions faced by the majority. Instead Pakistan has drifted further into social and economic catastrophe. Over 100 000 workers have been sacked, utility bills have rocketed, and food subsidies have been slashed. Plans were in motion for devastating job cuts in state industries and the public sector. At the same time Sharif and his coterie of family and friends have amassed enormous wealth through direct pilfering of the state coffers, tax avoidance and huge kickbacks as a result of tendering for lucrative local and international contracts. Amongst wide sections of the masses, Sharif was hated.
Sharif in his bid to keep hold of power created strong elements of a civilian dictatorship with attempts to gag the press. He also cracked down on workers’ rights to demonstrate and strike – banning unions in some parts of the state sector. Under his rule democracy was a farce. Sharif even attempted unsuccessfully to introduce strict Shariah (Islamic) rule, which would see him appointed as the country’s religious leader, with the right to rule by decree and dismiss Parliament. In his increasingly desperate attempts to keep hold of power, Sharif attacked different sections of the elite whom he felt threatened by including members of his own party. He forced President Leghari to resign at the end of 1997, and replaced him with his own candidate removing the right of the President to dismiss Parliament in the process to protect his own position. He attacked the judiciary and attempted to limit the power of the Supreme Court. This led to the removal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan last year. Nawaz Sharif concentrated more power in his own hands than any other previous civilian ruler in Pakistan’s history.
Splits in the ruling elite
The extreme social and economic crisis reflected itself in deep splits and frictions within the bureaucratic, military and economic elite of the country. Sharif’s drive for power accentuated these divisions. Particularly the military elite feared that Nawaz Sharif was going too far and that his disastrous period of rule threatened a complete collapse in society and the possibility of the development of widespread chaos.
The friction between the military and the governing party was compounded by the fact that under pressure of US imperialism, Nawaz Sharif had been pressing for a programme of cuts in military spending and also making attempts to start negotiations with the Indian ruling class over the future of the disputed and occupied territory of Kashmir. This represented a major threat to the prestige and power of the military. The Pakistani occupation of Kashmir with the portrayed threat of military action by the Indian ruling class has allowed the army to demand – and receive – a major part of the state budget for military spending. Also the generals benefit from lucrative smuggling operations and tenders for commercial activity in Kashmir. For decades the military have always played a decisive role in Pakistani history and see themselves as ideological and spiritual guardians of a society whose privileges are beyond reproach.
Sacking the Generals
Tension increased when Sharif sacked the Chief of Army staff Kemarat earlier this year, after the latter had suggested giving the military a greater role in the daily political life of the country. It was clear that Sharif was attempting to buy off sections of the army tops and intervening to create divisions within the military elite. This is shown by the fact that he chose the head of the Inter Services Intelligence agency to be the new chief of staff after he had sacked Musharraf. As the Pakistani Daily News International said: "Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee and Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday seized power in Pakistan by deposing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on charges of interfering in the affairs of the armed forces, politicising the army, destabilising it and trying to create dissension within its ranks" (Wednesday October 13, 1999). Increasingly Sharif’s actions enraged the generals who regarded him as an upstart who had the temerity to threaten their role as the supreme decision makers in Pakistan.
Matters came to a head over the recent incursion by Pakistani forces across the line of control into Indian Occupied Kashmir around Kargil. Sharif gave initial support to this action partially to attempt to divert the attention of the masses from the pressing economic disaster they faced but also to attempt to curry favour with sections of the military elite. Eventually Sharif was forced by US imperialism into a humiliating climb-down and recalled Pakistani forces in July. Sharif probably had no alternative. There was no clearly thought out strategy as to how this conflict would be continued. As the British Independent wrote: "Kargil was a tactical triumph in a strategic vacuum" (Wednesday 13 October 1999). The generals regarded the nature of the climbdown as an insulting blow to their prestige and a step too far. What had been portrayed as a tactical stroke of genius ended in disaster for the generals.
The trigger to the coup was the sacking of the new Chief of Army Staff, General Musharraf, while he was abroad in Sri Lanka. The coup which had already been prepared in outline was initiated.
It is an indication of how cocooned from reality Sharif actually was that he obviously believed he would face no repercussions from the military after taking this action. Sharif’s isolation was also demonstrated by the lack of an outcry from the PML-N leadership following his removal.
Reasons for the coup
The military coup was an attempt by the armed forces of the state to take action against political representatives of the ruling elite who were completely out of control. The military did not act out of compassion towards the masses but because the continued rule of the feudals and capitalists was threatened, by the actions of Nawaz Sharif and his hangers-on. It is clear that the military did not initially want to go down the road of open military dictatorship. Their first option was to deal with Sharif and then put in place some caretaker government with relatively untainted figures at its head. Obviously there would have been participation of the generals either directly inside a new cabinet or through the activation of the National Security Council which would have to be consulted on all important issues and have the power of veto over any decision of the government.
There was a public split amongst the generals about whether the coup should go ahead. This is the first time that such a split has been aired publicly. It is an indication of how small the room for manoeuvre by the generals actually is and is a wider reflection of the crisis facing the bourgeois elite. One of the major problems facing the generals is the sharp increase in demands for increased autonomy from the smaller provinces and national minorities in Pakistan. This a consequence of the dire social and economic situation and the subsequent radicalisation of these minorities. The ruling elite is seen by the different national minorities as a chauvinist Punjabi elite. The same applies to the army.
The divisions within the army reflect more long standing splits within the military elite between those who are more affected by the pressure of US imperialism and those who are more supportive of the Islamic fundamentalist forces in Pakistan. It also reflects the fear that the masses might move into action against an open military dictatorship.
Musharraf’s delay in announcing the plans of the military indicated the limited options they had and the furious debate that was taking place between the army generals. It also showed that while the generals had planned the coup carefully in terms of technical details, they did not have a clearly thought out political plan of action once they had seized power. Musharraf was also probably involved in a struggle to consolidate his own position within the army under completely changed circumstances. Only three corp commanders out of seven supported Musharraf’s actions. All those corp commanders and senior officers who remained in opposition to his actions have been arrested and face court martial.
The different factors that the generals had to contend with were: the furious pressure that has been exerted by US imperialism against open military dictatorship; the difficulty in convincing the President to provide a constitutional camouflage for the action they have taken and for the transit to a caretaker government; and the problems in finding a suitable and relatively non-tainted candidate to be Prime Minister. More hard line sections of the military also probably felt that a transition to a nominally civilian caretaker regime could reopen the political instability they instigated the coup to avoid. Once it became clear that the generals could not put a new civilian caretaker government in place when the President refused to provide them with the constitutional fig-leaf they required, they had to take a different course of action. They had limited time to act. Not to do so could lead to a dangerous power vacuum which could see elements of chaos and further disintegration developing. This was especially the case because the National Assembly (Federal parliament) was due to meet on Friday October 15, and the military feared that they could take action independent of the army and pose a threat to the take-over.
State of emergency
It was for these reasons that the generals issued Constitutional Order No.1 which announced a state of emergency early on Friday morning. This marks a much more serious development. The provisions of the state of emergency suspend the Pakistani constitution, Senate (Upper house), National Assembly, and Provisional Assemblies (Provincial parliaments). All senior ministers at federal and provincial level and their advisers have been sacked. None of the decisions or decrees, future or past, can be challenged in the Supreme Court. The order was made retrospectively to October 12 when the military first took over. While the Pakistani ambassador to the US denied that this represented martial law, it is clear that the military are moving down this road. Having embarked on this strategy the military might complete it. They have a taste for power and may be unwilling ot let go. Martial law would pose a serious threat to socialists and worker activists in Pakistan. Activists internationally must prepare themselves to launch campaigns against such repression by the military in Pakistan. The state of emergency and the military takeover may encourage Islamic fundamentalist groups to also attack socialists, activists, and even secular liberals.
However, it is unlikely that this will lead to a brutal and open military dictatorship like that which existed in Pakistan from 1977-88 under the hated General Zia Ul-Haq. The Zia coup was primarily aimed at the movement of the masses against the capitalist and feudal elite of the early 1970’s. It was designed to crush all signs of opposition to the ruling elite and the organisations of the working class.
The new military regime is unstable and without a clear political strategy. Its policy will zigzag, taking action against the most corrupt elements of the ruling elite and if necessary against the masses, and national minorities. It is clear the generals want to take action against the remnants of the Sharif regime first. This explains the freezing of the Sharif’s family bank accounts. This also has the advantage of being popular amongst the masses. This will not stop the generals lining their own pockets through corruption whilst in power.
The option of the transition to a caretaker government is not an immediate prospect. Under pressure the generals may be forced to concede some sort of "civilian caretaker" administration over a longer period. It is for this reason that the generals have not sacked the President. The situation is very fluid, and because of the instability within the military, and the country in general can change from day to day as the last 72 hours has shown.
The US and other imperialist powers will now vastly step up their pressure on the Pakistani military not to complete the transition to full martial law. Imperialism cannot support such a move partially because of public opinion internationally and the repercussions it could have amongst the masses in the neo-colonial world (It is indicative that the CIA issued a public warning on September 20th against the military not take any action against the government). But the main fear of US imperialism is that it would vastly increase tensions between the main nuclear regional imperialist powers in the region, India and Pakistan. One of the nightmares facing imperialism is the development of so-called "rogue" states with nuclear capability.
It is increasingly clear that US imperialism is having difficulty in pressurising the feudal and capitalist elites to follow its policies in the region. The US administration was forced to take cosmetic action against Pakistan following nuclear tests by the military in 1998 by suspending bilateral trading agreements. US imperialism’s exasperation with Nawaz Sharif’s inability and refusal to control corruption and implement IMF structural adjustment programmes was demonstrated by influencing the World Bank and IMF to hold back loans worth $280 million.
In the period running up the coup a number of generals and senior politicians visited the US under various pretexts. It is probable that the US administration was attempting to delay or stop a coup as well as building links with other members of the elite not directly connected with Sharif in preparation for the possible removal of the Prime Minister. This also explains the initial, relatively guarded response of US to the coup.
The military coup has undoubtedly raised tension in the region. It raises once again the possibility of war at a later date between Pakistan and India. The recently elected Hindi chauvinist BJP government will use this situation as an opportunity to whip up nationalism in India.
Whilst large sections of the masses have welcomed the demise of the hated Sharif government, important layers do have illusions in the military. Politicians have ruled Pakistan in the name of "democracy" since 1988. The catastrophe that has been visited on the working class and poor peasantry since then has dirtied the name of "democracy" in the eyes of sections of the masses. Fifty per cent of the population of Pakistan are under 25 and therefore have little or no memory of the last military dictatorship. Those who have illusions hope it will lead to some sort of stability and better social and economic conditions. These hopes will be cruelly dashed.
More conscious layers of activists see the return of the military as a setback but amongst the most combative there is a willingness to fight back. The workers’ organisations are relatively weak. None of the Trade Union leadership launched any sort of decisive campaign against the vicious attacks of the Nawaz government and as a result many workers looking for a lead became a bit demoralised.
Feudalism and capitalism in Pakistan, whatever governmental form it takes, has meant only poverty, suffering and wars for the workers and peasants of Pakistan. Only the Pakistani masses led by the working class can guarantee genuine democratic rule and an end to social deprivation.
There is an alternative!
It is vital for socialists and activists in Pakistan to launch a fightback against this latest military clampdown. Part of this would involve an orientation to the rank and file of the army. The following demands form a basis for the mobilisation of a mass movement to challenge military rule:
- No to military rule
- No trust in any of the politicians of the capitalists or Feudals – For a workers’ and Peasants government. No deals with capitalist and feudal politicians
- No gagging of the press. For the restoration of full rights to strike and demonstrate by the working class and peasantry.
- Workers should appeal to rank and file soldiers not to take action against the masses and to fight for trade union rights for soldiers, for a minimum wage for the army, for the right to elect all officers
- For the setting up of workers and peasant committees in the factories, urban and rural areas to fight for democratic rights and to campaign for the election of a constituent assembly to draw up a democratic constitution for Pakistan
- For mass mobilisations and protests against up to and including a general strike to force the military out.
- For an end to national oppression. For a new demarcation of the provinces and the defence of the cultural and language rights of all minorities.
- For and end to feudalism and capitalism in Pakistan. For a socialist Pakistan as part of a socialist federation of the sub-continent.
Decisive action now will prepare the best activists for a change in consciousness amongst wider layers once the illusions in the military are undermined by the masses daily experience. This will lead to explosions of anger against military rule. As the experience of Suharto in Indonesia shows, not even the most brutal dictator and his armed battalions can remain in power once the masses decide to move. If the best activists are prepared now then these movement could challenge the existence of feudalism and capitalism, raising a socialist alternative not only in Pakistan but in the Asian sub-continent.