Pakistan: Violence erupts in Karachi as political polarisation increases

Fifty killed and more than 150 injured

Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city saw its worst political violence in decades on 12 May. Over 50 people were killed and more than 150 injured in clashes and gunfights between the pro-government Muttahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM – a chauvinist reactionary party which primarily bases itself amongst the Mohajir minority) and opposition groups.

The violence followed a visit to the city by the now famous Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary who was suspended by the Musharraf regime because of his refusal to follow the orders of the country’s President and army commander, General Musharraf. It is no surprise that Musharraf did not take kindly to Chaudhary’s visit to Karachi.

This was particularly the case after the great show of strength by anti-Musharraf forces, made up of all the opposition parties, in Lahore on 5 May. Until that point, the government was only "uncomfortable" with Chaudhary’s outings to Rawalpindi, Sukur, Hyderabad and Peshawar to address different bar councils and lawyers’ conventions. The opposition parties also rallied around the arrivals of the Chief Justice to these cities.

But the Lahore show was unique. It indicated that the movement against General Musharraf was gathering momentum. After the unprecedented reception in Lahore, the government realised that wider layers of society were moving to support the movement led by lawyers who opposed the suspension of Iftikhar Chaudhary. It was also clear that the main capitalist opposition parties were gaining support as well and were prepared to mobilise their supporters on the streets. Up to this time, the leaders of the main parties were vociferous in their opposition to the Chief Justice’s suspension but refrained from mobilising large numbers in street demonstrations, fearing starting a movement they could not control.

The government decided not to give a free hand to the lawyers and opposition parties to show their strength. The Muttahidda Quami Movement (MQM), an ally of the Musharaf government, decided to show its muscle and announced a counter rally against the Chief Justice on 12 May.

Show of strength or weakness?

This protest became seen as a big test of strength for the MQM and the government. Tension increased when both the alliance of opposition parties and the MQM announced protest rallies on the same day and almost in the same places. Since the Karachi events both the MQM and government have blamed the visit of the Chief Justice for the bloodshed.

The MQM wanted to use their protest to demonstrate that the Chief Justice had no support in this, the largest city and biggest industrial centre, in Pakistan. While it is true that the MQM has a certain base and support in the Urdu speaking population of Karachi.

What everybody saw on that day had nothing to do with mass support for the MQM and the government. It was more about their willingness to use brutal violence to achieve their aims. The whole city was besieged, and all the roads leading to the airport were blocked with huge containers. Hundreds of opposition activists were arrested and many more were forced to go into hiding. The government tried everything to prevent opposition rallies from taking place. The MQM were not only given a free hand in their murderous attacks but were actively supported by the Karachi city administration. There was no attempt to block the route of the MQM’s protest demonstration. The rest of the city was barricaded in. Armed militias attacked opposition rallies and nine areas were turned into battle grounds.

The most modern assault rifles available were used in the attacks in which most of the victims were opposition party activists. Armed thugs and goons continued to control the streets for more than six hours. AAJ TV, a private TV channel, was also attacked and remained under intense fire for hours. Armed militias fired thousands of rounds of ammunition at the TV station.

The police and paramilitary Rangers were nowhere to be seen while these bloody attacks took place. Showing callous disregard for human life, when dead bodies were lying on the roads and injured were screaming from the pain of their injuries, the MQM continued its rally and show of strength in the centre of city. However, the turnout of only a few thousand at this rally was small compared to recent ones organised by the MQM.

For the last few years the MQM has desperately tried to change its image into appearing to be a non-ethnic national political force, which campaigns for the rights of all oppressed nationalities and sections of society. As part of this process the MQM tried to build a membership base in the other provinces in Pakistan, apart from Sindh were it is based. The massacre on 12 May changed all that. More than 150 office bearers of the MQM in the three other provinces resigned in protest. The MQM was forced to close down its offices throughout the country, because of the fear of reprisals from people enraged with the killings in Karachi. Rather than strengthening its position, the MQM is completely on the back foot.

Strong reaction

There has been a powerful backlash not only from the main capitalist opposition parties, but also from trade unions, traders, Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community groups against the Karachi events.

Capitalist opposition parties called for a ‘general strike’ which was one of the most successful of this type of protest for over seven years. However, this kind of ‘general strike’, although it has economic consequences only involves the closure of shops, markets and small businesses. It should not be confused with a general strike with the industrial working class at its head which cripples the economy and the ability of the elite to make profits. Nevertheless, even the traders organisations supported this call. The government and MQM came under fire from every corner and were quite clearly not expecting such a strong reaction. Even the media has turned against the government. As a result the Musharraf regime has started issuing threats of harsh action against the TV stations and newspapers if they continue covering events in a manner critical of the government.

For the first time since the Musharraf’s military coup in October 1999 the media, lawyers, traders, middle class professionals and some sections of the working class are coming close to coalescing into an opposition movement against the government. The capitalist opposition parties are also coming close to form a broader alliance. Such a broad opposition with the support of traders, trade unions and other social movements and organisations could create a nightmare situation for Musharraf.

Regime is in serious trouble

Musharraf’s regime is facing its first major political challenge since the 2002 elections. The regime seemed relatively comfortable and was preparing for another term with Musharraf as President and the Pakistani Muslim League – Q (PML-Q – a new party created by Musharraf after he seized power in 1999) being the senior partner in government.

However, everything changed after 9 March 2007 when the Supreme Court Chief Justice was suspended. The seemingly all-powerful government now faces serious political and judicial crises as a major division within the ruling elite has opened up. All the discontent with the Musharraf regime threatens to flow through the breach created by this crisis.

The regime is isolated and has been significantly weakened in the last two months. Politics is now sharply polarised along pro- and anti Musharraf lines. The future of General Musharraf has become the key question in Pakistan’s politics.

A pro-Musharraf analyst and retired army, General Talat Masood, describes the situation in the following words: "I think his [Musharraf’s] power is now diminishing rapidly. There is no doubt about it. It was a great blunder [the suspension of the Chief Justice], a major mistake of horrendous proportions. It was a sure recipe for confrontation. All actions subsequent to 9 March reflect a sense of insecurity in government ranks leading to a situation where elections could be held ahead of time. But it is unlikely that Musharraf will be able to hold both offices, to become President, he will have to shed the uniform."

Another very well known independent political analyst and editor of the Daily Times, Najam Sethi said, "the violence in Karachi has set the scene for a national confrontation. The battle lines are now drawn. There is Musharraf and the ruling party and the MQM on one side and the rest of Pakistan on the other. He is facing the worst period of his rule. As Karachi was in flames, Musharraf was addressing a rally in Islamabad organised by his cronies to demonstrate public support for the military-led administration. Musharraf conveyed a message to the Chief Justice that his administration would use state machinery to stop the Chief Justice and that he would not be allowed to reach out to people. His support is receding fast but the Chief Justice support is growing by the day. Two chiefs are fighting each other, on the one hand the Chief of Army Staff has the support of military and state apparatus, and on the other the Chief Justice of Pakistan has the support of civil society."

It is not ruled out that the Musharraf government could hold on to power but it has lost much of its authority and legitimacy. The regime has never been as isolated since coming to power. Mainstream capitalist political parties were opposed to Musharraf from the beginning, but the MMA (an alliance of major Islamic religious parties) extended him reluctant support. They facilitated the passage of the 17th amendment to the constitution which allowed and enabled Musharraf to continue as army chief and President of the country. Now the MMA is no longer willing to support Musharraf.

These recent events have made it impossible for the Benazir Bhutto led Pakistani Peoples Party to strike a deal with Musharraf to support him in the near future. There are very few political options left for the government to solve the current political and judicial crisis.

Musharraf presides over a hierarchical political order based on the military. As commanding officer, he is supported by the army-intelligence establishment that has the backing of the top bureaucracy. Beneath this are the co-opted political elite. These arrangements have three major implications for the political system. It restricts or excludes the role of the dissident political forces which no loner have any stake in the Musharraf-led military dominated political order; the co-opted political leaders depend on Musharraf for political clout; and rather than strengthening his popular credentials, this makes this political set-up the most unpopular in the history of Pakistan.

The suspension of the Chief Justice was a pre-emptive move to ensure that top echelons of the judiciary did not create any problems for Musharraf in the event of opposition challenges to his candidature for another term. Whatever the intention, it has backfired massively. This decision has developed the political conditions which the opposition parties can exploit. Now Musharraf wants to re-elect himself from the present assemblies rather than waiting for new elections. This alone can further fan the flames of this conflict and force it to new, even more intense levels.

As a result the government is considering different options to end the present crisis. It is more likely that they will use more repressive measures to crush the opposition movement. But this could provoke widespread agitation against the government and could also draw in new layers of the working class in the movement.

The next few months are crucial for the future of the Musharraf regime, which is hanging by a thread. The outcome of the on-going legal and constitutional battle in the Supreme Court will have an effect in determining the future course of political events in Pakistan. If the Supreme Court decides the matter in the favour of the Chief Justice and drops the charges against him, it will be big blow for the present regime. If case goes against Iftikhar Chaudhary, it could provoke a fresh series of protests and this could force out Musharraf and his cronies.

The government is worried about the fact that more and more people are joining the street protests every day. Now the teachers union and Doctors association has also joined the movement. But the overwhelming majority of working class people are still observers of the movement.

Nevertheless, the Chief Justice is the most popular ‘non-political’ personality in the country. The reason for this popularity is that he decided to take on the Musharraf regime. He has become a symbol of resistance and courage. The lawyers’ movement around Iftikhar Chaudhary has been able to build in just 2 months what the opposition parties have failed to develop in seven years. This is because the capitalist opposition leaders are completely unable to build any lasting support which is necessary to mobilise the masses.

There is no leadership on a national level which can fill the gap. In the absence of a mass working class party and leadership, the situation has become more complex.

While the present protests could develop into a broader movement involving wider sections of the working class, this is not certain. At the moment the majority of the working class is not confidant enough to take on the government and consciousness is still contradictory. On one hand there is rising anger and hatred against the regime and the ruling class but still there is wide spread disillusionment about politics and political parties. It will take longer, therefore, to translate the anger into action. There are very few people who still have illusions in the system and state institutions, but there is no clarity of what the alternative might be. The huge anger against elite but this has not yet been translated into a clear class consciousness on a mass scale. But as the movement develops further, a clearer class consciousness will emerge.

Independent political action by the Pakistani working class is needed to get rid of military rule and capitalism. Workers and young people do not trust the capitalist and religious parties who are involved in this movement to get their corrupt hands on the levers of power. If they do manage to oust Musharraf it will not solve any of the basic problems faced by the working class. A real change and transformation of society is only possible if working class takes power in to its own hands, and replacing capitalism and feudalism with a democratic socialist society.

Against the military rule, capitalism and feudalism

For workers and peasants government and socialist planned economy

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