Pakistan: Political crises and General Musharraf’s ‘democracy’

Opposition parties divided but regime relies on US imperialism

The leading Pakistani journalist and political commentator, Ayaz Amir, writing in ‘Dawn’ (3 January 2005), explains the present political situation in Pakistan with these words: "The situation is very dangerous, [the] military has lost respect and credibility, politicians have lost trust, state institutions are fighting with each other, there is no room for reforms, the masses have no trust on this corrupt system, the only hope people have left with is revolution, they will welcome even a Bolshevik Revolution under the leadership of Lenin."

His comments explain the political situation that exists in Pakistan. The 5-year military rule of General Pervaiz Musharraf has miserably failed to solve any of the deep social, political and economic problems, but, on the contrary, has aggravated each and every problem. The promise of genuine democracy is an utter sham of democracy. The promise of provincial harmony has been fulfilled with increased provincial rivalry. There is more uncertainty and instability now than ever before.

The claims of economic growth mean nothing for the overwhelming majority of the working masses. More than 50% of the population still survives on less than 1US$ per day. 86% still live under 2US$ per day. The official unemployment rate is 9.8% but real figures are around 20%. Inflation has increased from 4.9% to 10.8%. Petrol and diesel prices have increased to 250%. Electricity charges have increased 340%. Transport fares have gone up by 200%. The prices of vegetables, fruits, flour, fertilizers and other utilities, have doubled in the last few years.

The present military regime made many promises to improve the living conditions of the working class, but nothing has been done. This regime increased the wages of members of parliament, of Ministers, Prime Ministers and the President, more than 100%. In the last 5 years, the total increase in the salaries of workers went up by only 30%. The dreams of stability, prosperity, and a better life have been completely shattered. Bomb explosions, sectarian killings, attacks on mosques, state repression, crimes against women, and police torture and custodial deaths etc are on the rise and become daily routine.

General Pervaiz Musharraf is playing very dangerous game by using different political forces for his own interests. Now he has publicly announced not to shed his military uniform, which he promised to do before 31st December 2004. He said in a televised address to the nation, that he "will keep his military uniform for the stability of the present system and to continue the economic reforms". He also appealed to the opposition parties to co-operate with him and not to agitate against his military role.

His speech ended the speculation around his role and has made life very difficult for the MMA, the religious parties’ alliance (nick-named the ‘Mullah, Military, America alliance’). The MMA made an agreement with Musharraf one year ago, which meant the MMA supported Musharraf’s amendments to the state constitution, known as LFO (‘Legal Framework Order’), and now called the 17th Amendment. With the help of the MMA, Musharraf was able to get the majority necessary to make amendments to the constitution. These amendments give protection to all the acts Musharraf has made as Chief Executive, before the October 2002 elections. In return, Musharraf promised to shed his uniform before 31st December 2004. At that time, with the help of MMA, the General was able to resolve very serious political and constitutional crises.

Now Musharraf is playing same game with the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party). Musharraf has been able to split the opposition with the release of Asif Zardari (the husband of Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the PPP). Now Musharraf wants the help of the PPP to counter the MMA. Musharraf is frightened of a joint protest movement of opposition parties and therefore adopts a strategy of "divide and rule".

Fragile opposition and protest movement

Despite all the efforts by the opposition parties, they have not been able to form a joint platform to launch an anti-Musharraf movement. The ARD (Alliance for Restoration of Democracy) in which the PPP and PMLN (Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz) are the main components, accuses the MMA of betrayal. Both alliances are still trying to come together to form a bigger alliance against Musharaf but there are many issues of contention between the parties.

The first contentious issue is that the ARD is asking the MMA to issue a public apology over their previous support for Musharraf concerning the LFO. The second issue is that the ARD is asking for fresh elections. The MMA oppose this and want to continue with the present parliament. The third issue is the so-called "war on terror". On this issue, the MMA is against the military operation in Wana (a territory on the border with Afghanistan), and is also opposing the government’s foreign policy, especially concerning Afghanistan and Kashmir. In contrast, the PPP supports Musharraf’s foreign policy and US imperialism, which the MMA oppose publicly. The MMA has also put forward their concept of ‘Islamisation’ as the programme for a wider opposition alliance, which the PPP has opposed. In this situation, it is most unlikely that the MMA and ARD will launch a joint struggle against Musharraf.

The MMA held rallies and public meetings against Musharraf in December, which were not very successful. Only a few thousand people attended these rallies. The MMA failed to attract hundreds of thousands. The main rallies were in Punjab, but no rally was held in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) or in Baluchistan, where the MMA is in the provincial government. The main problem with the MMA is that they do not want to sacrifice their two provincial governments. There are big differences inside the MMA on this issue. On the one hand, the JUI (Jamiat Ullamiay Islam) the largest parliamentary party in the MMA, wants to keep close ties with Musharraf to secure their governments in NWFP and Baluchistan. On the other hand, JI (Jamat-e-Islami) wants to take more hard-line action against the Musharraf regime.

At the moment, this means that all the parties in the MMA can agree is to do some activities to save their face and also to keep their electoral support intact. The JUI is traditionally closer to the PPP, and the JI is traditionally closer to the PMLN. The possibility of new alliances can’t be ruled out but different forces are fighting with each other for their own interests. This situation is quite favorable for Musharraf.

The situation is not very good for the PPP. On one hand, they want to share power and to make compromises with Musharraf. On the other hand, they also want to present themselves as the main opposition to Musharraf. The PPP’s whole policy is centered on pleasing US imperialism. The party has completely capitulated to the White House and they want to get power with the help and blessing of the super power. The release of Asif Zardari clearly shows that some understanding has already been reached between the PPP leaders and the Musharraf regime. The PPP is not showing any interest in the movement against Musharraf. They just want to continue their protest movement in the parliament, in news papers and in press briefings. For the last two years, the main activity carried out by the PPP was the movement for the release of Asif Zardari. Now Asif Zardari has flown to Dubai to chalk out a future political strategy with his wife, Benazir Bhutto. After Zardari’s departure, the Pakistan government also sent a delegation to Dubai for talks.

Now the government has changed its strategy towards the PPP and PMLN and is ready to give some political space to both parties. Musharraf also wants to put pressure on the MMA through this policy.

The government faces other considerations. Musharraf can announce fresh elections in 2005 or at the beginning of 2006. The PPP wants an election in 2005 but they can wait. It is very difficult for Musharraf to continue with the present political set-up for long period.

Ruling coalition in crisis

The ruling coalition, which is dominated by the PML (a right wing capitalist party), leans further to the right. The majority of this party consists of feudal lords and tribal chiefs and the main leadership is from rural areas. Traditionally they are very conservative, reactionary and right wing. Their ideology is against the political thinking of Musharraf. The PML was created by the secret service agencies, the ISI, to give political cover to the Musharraf regime. All these corrupt politicians are together just for power, money and privileges. According to the President, from the PML there are 50 candidates for the Prime Minister’s position! This ruling coalition is very weak and divided.

Under pressure from US imperialism, Musharraf has been forced to change many state policies, which were considered ‘traditional’ state policies; especially concerning Kashmir, Afghanistan, Jihad, and religious fundamentalism. This U-turn has created big crises in the state institutions, mainly concerning the ISI, the military etc. Two murder attempts on Musharraf’s life, in which junior ranking military officers were involved, is clear evidence of this. Now these officers are under trial and three of them have been punished by military court. There is widespread resentment in the lower ranks of the military against US domination.

It is true that the fundamentalist section in the military and ISI is significantly weakened over the last few years, but they are not completely destroyed. They are down but not going to give up easily. Musharraf is frightened of a mass movement developing in society, which would weaken his position in the armed forces and allow the fundamentalists to exploit the situation. The calm in the military is like the calm before the storm.

The ruling PML and their allies have differences on many issues. Two recent incidents have exposed this marriage of convenience. First was the decision of the government to abolish the need to indicate a person’s religion in their passport. The PML opposed that decision and religious parties threatened to launch a protest movement. The PML president made it very clear that they will not accept these measures.

Secondly, on the issue of religious schools, different statements came from different ministers. The majority of PML ministers have close ties and relations with armed Jihadi organisations. The MQM (Muthida Qumi Movement) urban, Sindh-based, urdu-speaking group wants to abolish feudalism but their government partners are mostly feudal lords. General Musharraf’s main policy is so-called, "Moderation" and "Enlightenment", which he always emphasises. But, at the same time, the ruling party wants conservative and right-wing policies. They don’t want to make any changes which can benefit women, children, and minorities. The ruling Muslim League has more in common with the programme and ideas of the MMA than with the PPP or the ‘liberal’ sections of the ruling elite.

The majority of the ruling party’s MP’s are against any sort of agreement with the PPP, because they feel their positions threatened. This section of the ruling party wants to make compromises with the MMA. In this situation, Musharraf is not very comfortable. US imperialism and the EU, especially Germany, France and Britain, are also putting lot of pressure on Musharraf to include the PPP in the political setup. The next couple of months are crucial in this regard. It seems more likely that PPP will not hesitate to become part of the Musharraf regime before or after the new elections. Some PPP leaders have made public statements that the PPP is ready to join any national or provisional Government under the office of a uniformed Musharraf.

The bankruptcy of the nationalist parties

As the result of the Musharraf regime’s policies over the last few years, nationalist feelings are on the rise in some provinces, especially in Baluchistan, Sindh and NWFP. Like the mainstream political parties, the nationalist parties, generally, have also centered their politics on issues that are not key to working people.

The situation in Baluchistan is very critical and going out of control. The nationalist parties in Baluchistan area are campaigning against the construction of the Gawadar port [which displaces many local people and will give huge profits for the Punjabi elite] and the new cantonments [Punjabi and military dominated settlements]. The leadership of these nationalist parties is mainly tribal chiefs and they represent the demands and aspirations of the ruling elite. They want to build their movement on the basis of narrow nationalism. They not only oppose the Punjabi ruling elite but they are also opposing the Punjabi working class and blame them for national exploitation and repression.

Marxists always oppose any kind of repression and exploitation against any nationality or group and stand for workers’ unity, on the basis of class struggle and socialism. Workers’ unity cannot be reached on the basis of narrow nationalism. The Socialist Movement Pakistan (SMP), the CWI in Pakistan, strongly condemns and opposes all kinds of state repression and exploitation against the Baluchi working class.

But the nationalist parties are the parties of their respective ruling elites. In NWFP, the ANP (Awami National Party) has become the party of the Pashtun ruling elite. They have abandoned any sort of class programme. The same process has taken place with other parties in the Sindh and southern Punjab. These parties are politically so bankrupt that they now openly support the policies of US imperialism. They are advocating the idea that US imperialism will help them to get their freedom from the Punjabi elite. Most of these parties are no longer advocating separation from Pakistan. Now their main demand is for more provincial autonomy. The leadership of these parties wants a bigger share of power, influence and resources from the Punjabi ruling elite.

That does not mean that there are no strong nationalist feelings amongst the youth and the working class from these nationalities. The youth hate the domination of the Punjabi ruling elite but, at the same time, they are also against the so-called ‘leadership’ of the regional nationalist parties. The increase in the votes for the religious parties in NWFP and Baluchistan is a reflection of this sentiment.

The other problem with these nationalist parties is that they never raise a voice against their local feudal lords, tribal chiefs and ruling elite. They like to blame Punjabis for every thing that is wrong in the provinces. They never link these problems with the rotten capitalist and feudal system. They want to solve the deep social, economic and political problems on a nationalist basis within capitalism, which is not possible.

The SMP fully supports the right of self-determination for every oppressed nationality. But this alone will not solve the fundamental problems of the working class, which needs its own political organisation, with a clear, revolutionary, socialist programme.

The Pakistani working class, on numerous occasions, proved that working class unity is possible only on the basis of class issues. Working people need mass independent organizations and must reject the capitalist parties, at national and regional levels.

All the nationalist parties were previously in different governments, including those headed by Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto. Their struggle is not to solve the problems of the poor working masses. Instead, they want to play the role of the junior partners of the Punjabi ruling elite. They are also using radical nationalist rhetoric to get electoral support.

In this situation it is necessary to build a strong revolutionary workers’ party, on national level, with clear socialist programme. A revolutionary party can build strong workers’ unity among the working class of different nationalities.

Can Musharraf survive?

It is very difficult to predict when Musharraf will lose power but it can be said that he is feeling quite comfortable at the moment. However he will not be able to continue very long in that way. The situation can change quite rapidly and in a very short space of time.

Musharraf’s main strength is the support he is enjoying from US imperialism and the top military brass. Any small incident can change the whole scenario. He is also feeling confident due to the growth of the economy. Musharraf is not facing a strong united opposition or working class movement. In the short term, it is unlikely that he will face a strong working class movement. But if he remains in the power for a longer time, it is more likely that he will face a rebellion from hungry, impoverished, and unemployed youth, and the working class.

2005 is very important for Musharraf. He is going to introduce more vicious anti-worker and anti-poor policies. He will intensify privatization and downsizing, and increase the prices of utilities. These steps, along with other political factors, can create huge problems for Musharraf. But in the absence of real working class opposition it is less likely that, in the short term, he will be forced to resign through a mass movement.

Of course, after several attempts on his life, Musharraf’s assassination cannot be ruled out, just as previous presidents, Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq, were killed. They both relied heavily on US imperialism and paid the price.

In the situation opening up in Pakistan, the SMP will aim to play a crucial role, building a revolutionary alternative for the working class and can develop very rapidly.

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January 2005