Pakistan: Crisis continues in run-up to presidential elections

All wings of establishment jostle for power

On 28 September, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that President Pervez Musharraf can stand for election, on 6 October, despite being the leader of the armed forces. The court dismissed legal challenges to Musharraf holding both posts, at the same time.

The court result is a blow to the opposition parties. The main opposition party alliance said it will boycott the polls. The opposition may contest another legal battle with the Electoral Commission against Musharraf.

The following article by Khalid Bhatti, written before the Supreme Court outcome, looks at the background to the increasingly volatile and potentially explosive situation in Pakistan.

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Crisis continues in run-up to presidential elections

The political tension between the government coalition and opposition parties is on the rise, following the announcement of presidential elections, to be held on October 6, 2007. General Perez Musharraf wants to be re-elected by the current ‘assemblies’, for another 5 years term as president-in-uniform. Opposition parties threaten to resign from the assemblies, if Musharraf follows this plan. They brought their challenge to the Supreme Court.

During August, there appeared to be no limit to the maneuvering to ensure Musharraf continued in office. In his latest move, Musharraf assured the Supreme Court that he will forego the office of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), if he elected re-elected as president, and that he will remove his uniform but only if he is elected. That amounts to both a threat and concession. If you allow me to contest the elections than I will take off the army uniform, he is saying. But, if you stop me contesting the election, I will continue in the uniform, which means Martial Law.

It is most likely the Supreme Court will allow Musharraf to contest the elections, on the condition he will become a civilian president during the next term. If the court allowed him to take this course, it means he be re-elected, with a comfortable majority, by the existing assemblies. There will be no serious challenge to his reelection from the divided opposition.

The next couple of weeks will determine the future political course of Pakistan. Will there be a so-called ‘democratic transition’, from a military regime to a democracy? A legal battle is under way in the Supreme Court. But, one thing is clear: we are heading towards a more vulnerable, volatile, explosive and uncertain situation in Pakistan.

Establishment dividing lines

The political divide in Pakistan is not on the basis of ideas or ideology. Instead, this divide is the reflection of factions in the establishment. Different political parties are expressing the views of different groups within the ruling class. The establishment is divided, mainly into two camps; a pro-US, right wing, ‘liberal’ camp, headed by General Musharraf, and an anti-US, nationalist and religious camp. Pakistani political parties are divided along these lines.

There is no established political party in the country that can claim its independence from the establishment. The pro-US camp is still dominating the political scene, and enjoys control over state institutions. But there are serious challenges faced by the Musharraf-led camp, from the nationalist and extreme right wing religious forces, led by Nawaz Sharif and the Islamic fundamentalist Jamat-e Islami. There is a power struggle going taking place between the two wings over who controls the state institutions. The Benazir Bhutto-led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) sides with so-called ‘liberal camp’, in an effort to come to power.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the ex-ally of Benazir, links up with the right wing, nationalist camp, dominated by fundamentalists. The military establishment still dominates politics through intelligence agencies. Both competing wings are not against this domination, but the extreme right wing, nationalist camp wants the military establishment to tilt towards the religious right, and for the military to take a similar approach on foreign and domestic policies. This camp wants to continue a decade-long policy of encouraging and supporting ‘Jihadi culture’ and militant Islamic movements internationally.

Benazir Bhutto, General Musharraf, and other leaders and ‘liberal’ commentators, say religious extremism is a serious threat to society, and so all ‘liberal and secular forces’ should form an alliance to counter this threat. The religious right claims Musharraf wants to make Pakistan ‘a secular state’, so all religious forces should form an alliance to stop this process. Despite all their competing claims, both wings are divided because of the power struggle, in which they are fully involved. At the moment, all the secular and liberal-nationalist parties from the Sindh, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and from Baluchistan are part of the APDM (All Parties’ Democratic Movement), representing the extreme right. At the same time, some religious-based parties, including the JUI, side with the so-called ‘liberal camp’.

Disillusionment and political leadership

The opportunism and political bankruptcy of the political parties has deepened disillusionment amongst the working masses. The anger and hatred against the present regime is rising to new heights. A recent wave of price hikes has badly hit the working class. Everybody criticizes the government’s failure to stop the price increase. The regime’s popularity is at its lowest ever levels. But the opposition parties have not been able to use this anger against the government to mobilise the masses. Despite being unpopular, Musharraf has fully exploited the weakness of the opposition to continue his rule. Working people have simply lost trust in the political parties and their leaderships. They are not ready to trust any of the existing parties. The overwhelming majority of the working class distances itself from the ‘political processes. That does not mean that they are not interested in the politics, but they are not ready to become part of any political party. This discontent and political alienation is the result of many political betrayals by the parties. The phenomenon is holding back the masses and delaying the working class and poor coming onto the streets to protest.

Hundreds of thousands of people came onto the streets to greet and welcome the former Chief Justice, during his visits to different parts of the country. People waited for hours to get a glimpse of the legal official. Earlier this year, the dismissal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, acted as a catalyst to draw to the surface all the discontent lying just below the Pakistan’s ’economic boom’. According to recent surveys, the Chief Justice is the most popular person amongst the masses of Pakistan. He is a symbol of hope for many people; a hope for justice and freedom. But these same people are not ready to answer the calls of opposition leaders.

There is no hope amongst the masses that opposition parties can solve their problems, if they bring them to power. Both opposition and government parties have no ideology, programme, manifesto or strategy to rally the masses behind them.

Nawaz Sharif and the Arab connection

Former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, returned very briefly to Pakistan on 10 September, with much media hype, ending nearly 8 years in exile. Sharif landed at Islamabad airport, only to be sent to Saudi Arabia to complete his 10 years exile period. Nawaz Sharif was expecting a historical reception at the airport, but he found only police commandos and paramilitary forces. The Musharraf government used their usual tactics to stop Sharif’s supporters and party workers reaching Islamabad to welcome the returning leader. All the prominent and active PML-N workers were arrested and the highways leading to the airport were closed. Very few people lined the roads to show their solidarity with Sharif, who was assured by his party leaders and the APDM leadership that the masses were looking to him for leadership, and at least one million people would turn out to receive him. In the event, there were not even 100 people to greet Sharif. The government successfully bundled Sharif onto another airplane to fly him to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Arabian government played active and key role in Sharif’s exile. Pakistani and Saudi governments claimed that Nawaz Sharif is bound to an agreement, signed by the two governments and the Sharif family, which barred Nawaz Sharif and his family to from returning to Pakistan for an agreed exile period of ten years. Nawaz Sharif and his family denied such an agreement exists but later accepted that they did sign the agreement for five years exile.

Musharraf wanted to stop the return of Sharif, at any cost. But he was under pressure from the Supreme Court to allow Sharif’s return. All the efforts to persuade Nawaz Sharif to postpone his return failed. Then Musharraf contacted the Saudi King and the President Bush administration to ask their help to stop Sharif coming back to Pakistan. In the beginning, the Saudi government was bit reluctant to come out openly opposing Nawaz Sharif’s return. But pressure from the Bush administration forced the Saudis to come out in public supporting the Musharraf government. The Bush administration was against the return of Sharif, as it could undermine the Musharraf regime and strengthen the anti-Musharraf forces. The Saudi intelligence chief and the Lebanese millionaire-politician, Saad Harari (the son of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafique Harari) came out as guarantors of an ‘agreement’ the Saudi government made with General Musharraf, in December 2000, to release Nawaz Sharif from prison, where he was completing his sentence. The former US president, Bill Clinton, also played important role in this agreement.

US interference in Pakistani politics is not new, but Saudi Arabian active involvement, to support a military dictator, came as a surprise for most people in Pakistan. The Saudi royal family and the Saudi government came under heavy criticism. This is a change, as previously the Saudi royals and regime enjoyed huge respect from the Pakistan ruling class and even many amongst the masses. Now this has changed. Many people are questioning Saudi involvement in Pakistani politics.

Nawaz Sharif is, once again, enjoying the hospitality of the Saudi Royal family. Sharif’s party, and the APDM, failed to organise any noticeable protest demonstrations against his deportation to Saudi Arabia. The working masses showed no interest in the whole episode. Nawaz Sharif has been ousted, once again, from the political scene, at least for time being.

These events, and the continual unprincipled maneuvering and jostling for positions of influence and power by the main political forces, including Benazir and the PPP, shows the working masses of Pakistan desperately need an alternative. Today, the PPP is dominated by feudals and capitalists. The masses are increasingly disillusioned with the PPP leaders and all other politicians but they need a viable political alternative that genuinely acts in their interests. This requires struggling to build a new party of the working class, peasants and landless workers and the urban poor. With a socialist programme that opposes military rule, capitalism, landlordism and meddling imperialism, and which stands for full democratic rights, a new workers’ party could gain a mass basis of support throughout society. This would place it in a position to contest the woeful capitalist ‘choices’ of the rule of the generals or the rule of corrupt, pro-capitalist civilian politicians.

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