Pakistan : A country on the edge

State and society in crisis

Pakistan, even before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, was gripped by a severe political and social crisis. There are country-wide protests against the price hikes and power shortages. There seems to be no end to the suicide bombings and terror unleashed by the reactionary armed Islamic groups. The state apparatus is dysfunctional in many parts of the country. The January elections have been delayed until February 18.

The murder of Benazir Bhutto has deepened the crisis. The country is in chaos. Many of the political institutions have been effectively dismantled, the constitution shredded and even the judiciary has been attacked. There is an absence of any valid or popular political leadership and abject incompetence on the part of the government’s own functionaries.

The three days of violence and anarchy which erupted after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto were a clear indication of coming events, as the anger and desperation of the masses exploded. The regime has been disorientated and destabilised, as nothing appears to be in its grip, not even its own thinking! The whole of society is in turmoil, as a series of multiple crises have unfolded and support for the regime has plunged. Pervez Musharraf and his regime are now hanging by a thread.

The level of credibility of the regime can be judged from the fact that very few people in the country trust the statements made by the government officials about Benazir Bhutto’s killing or other issues. Whatever the government says, the people think the opposite is true. All the efforts of the regime to hang on to the power are resulting in new crises developing and further intensifying the existing ones.

Western think-tanks and media, and even Pakistani politicians and political commentators, are raising serious questions about the future of the country. ‘The Economist’ declared Pakistan as the most dangerous place in the world. Many are talking about possible civil war, ‘balkanisation’, increased chaos and anarchy. People are even comparing the present situation to crisis in 1970, which led to the split of Pakistan in 1971- when East Pakistan split away to form Bangladesh. The US administration is worried about the safety of nuclear arsenals. It has drawn up plans for military intervention to seize them if the situation gets out of control. A few years ago, most Pakistanis believed that these gloomy prospects were just fictitious scaremongering. Now the majority of people have begun to realise that conditions are ripe for such gloomy scenarios to develop.

However, even if the question of the political disintegration of the country is not immediately on the agenda, other more horrific developments can begin to take place, such as a military intervention, or the suffocation of the masses under a stagnant dictatorship like Burma. There are also the anarchic horrors that develop under a ‘failed state’, such as in Afghanistan in the 1990s and in Somalia, today. These are the prospects that await Pakistan if the current crisis ridden system continues.

Political stability and elections

The February elections, if they go ahead, will take place against the background of political turmoil and upheaval. The Musharraf-led interim government will try everything to secure a majority for the pro- government parties. This will only be possible on the basis of widespread ballot rigging and corruption. There still remains a big question mark over the elections going ahead or if they will be delayed again. The interim government is the continuation of the pro-Musharraf coalition government led by the PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam)). This interim government is not capable of holding free and fair elections. The only difference between this government and the previous one is that the fathers in government positions have been replaced by sons and sons with fathers or other family members!

The ruling class and state apparatus are so corrupt and rotten they cannot organise even relatively free, fair, independent and democratic elections. According to the election rules introduced by the Musharraf regime before the last election, only graduates can contest parliamentary elections. This means that only 1% of the population can stand as candidates and 99% can vote. It is most likely that the turn-out in the elections will be very low. This will make it easier for the regime to rig them. If the present wave of suicide bombings continues during the election campaign, right up to election day, the turn out might fall to an historic low.

This situation will benefit the pro-Musharraf parties. The future of ex-General Musharraf largely depends on the outcome of these elections. Even relatively free and fair elections would give the opposition a majority. That would be a disaster for the regime and its hangers-on. The only ‘solution’ open to the regime is to rig the elections to ensure a majority for the pro-Musharraf parties. However, the rigging of the elections is now not as easy as it was before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. In the current situation, it could spark a mass protest movement against the regime. According to intelligence agency reports, printed in the media, in free and fair elections the opposition would win between 70 – 76% of the parliamentary seats. The pro-Musharraf parties would be routed. These reports have also warned that wide-spread rigging could provoke violent protests in the country, as we saw in Kenya recently.

An opposition majority would mean a direct confrontation between the new government and the president. This could provoke a new military intervention and coup. When Musharraf decided to hold the elections in January, he was confident of easily rigging the election and winning a majority. Following recent events, his confidence has been shaken.

After the assassination of Benazir, the regime was forced to postpone the elections to avoid a crushing defeat for the parties in the pro-government alliance. This was done to buy time in the hope that they would be able to gain some ground. Yet the situation was so tense that pro-Musharraf candidates were not able to even campaign in public for a whole week for fear of being attacked. The intelligence agencies reported to the government that if the elections were not postponed then the opposition parties would get more than a two-thirds majority in parliament. This was a potential nightmare scenario for the regime. It would have allowed the opposition to amend the constitution and impeach the president. One thing is very clear. These elections will not be able to bring stability to the situation, as many believe. The outcome of the elections can add more uncertainty and turmoil.

The decision to postpone the elections was a typical example of the bureaucratic and administrative approach of the regime to dealing with political problems. The long years of direct and indirect military rule and the expanded role of the intelligence agencies have resulted in a loss of skill and ability in the management and handling of political questions. The administration views political activities and elections as administrative burdens, if not an actual nightmare. It tries to restrict political activities and avoid elections if it is possible. At best it favours carefully controlled elections. This repressive and bureaucratic method only aggravates the social and political problems. These methods were used following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Firstly, the interior ministry made contradictory statements. Then the crime scene was washed immediately, eliminating potentially valuable evidence. As a result most people lacked any confidence in official declarations and most were convinced that the government was involved in some way.

Split in the ruling class

There is an open split in the ruling class and state apparatus. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a clear reflection of this division that has developed into a violent clash. Government and independent commentators portray these splits as a clash between ‘extremism’ and ‘moderation’. The ‘extremists’, they argue, are various religious parties and organisations that aim to forcibly impose their rule on society. The ‘moderates’, they claim, are represented by the government, its imperialist backers and those sections of society that oppose the imposition of a fundamentalist religious order. But these are not the only conflicts which exist at the moment. Both these two camps, and others, are also split and divided.

In reality, the battle lines are not between religious ‘extremism’ and ‘moderation’. The struggle being waged is between two forms of extremism. These have some differences but are also similar in some respects. But they both feed off each other and use the other to try and strengthen their own position. Neither of them is really concerned about the interests of the masses.

Moderation and tolerance have not been shown by either side. They are both engaged in a struggle for power and control over vital economic and political interests and resources. The moderate and progressive elements of society have been sidelined by these two reactionary wings in the state and non-state forces. The one thing they both have in common is the idea that all the problems can only be resolved by resorting to repressive or military means.

The section of the ruling class gathered around Musharraf – a section of military generals and the intelligence establishment – wants to continue the status-quo. They want to maintain the military dominance of all of the state apparatus and influence in the economy, at any cost. There is growing anger and opposition in society against the military domination of politics and the economy. A small part of the military establishment recognises the massive opposition which is developing to them and favour distancing themselves from politics. This is reflected by the new army chief, who has sent orders to military officers, banning them from meeting with politicians and being involved in politics.

There is growing resentment among the urban upper middle class politicians and rural masses against feudalism and the current situation. The most serious sections of the state apparatus and ruling class are frightened of the widening gap that exists between the mass of the population and the state institutions.

There are differences in the establishment and the ruling class on the questions of the ‘war on terror’ and the future political system through which they want to rule, as well as over religious extremism and reform of the state structures. While they all want to maintain their rule over society and the exploitation of the masses some want to reform the system to make it ‘more acceptable for the middle class and working masses’ in the hope of establishing more ‘stability’.

The conflict between these different sections of the ruling class has taken an increasingly violent turn. This will only increase the instability and chaos.

Rising tide of religious extremism

According to some published newspaper reports, Pakistan is next to Iraq in terms of the number of casualties of terrorism. Although in Afghanistan the absolute number of casualties may be higher, they are mainly as a result of deaths on the battlefields and the victims of ‘collateral damage’. Suicide attacks in Afghanistan are not as widespread or with the same level of devastation as in Pakistan. According to a report prepared for 2007 by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, Pakistan witnessed 1,442 violent incidents, including border skirmishes. These caused nearly 9,000 casualties – 3,448 of them fatal.

This figure is 492% higher than it was in 2005. Sixty three suicide attacks killed 770 people. Of the total killed, 58% were civilians. In the first few weeks of 2008, more than 57 people have lost their lives in three different suicide attacks. This is the consequence of the six year ‘war on terror’ to ‘wipe out extremism and terrorism’!

The high level of attacks in 2007 shows the military-led government’s gross failure to stem, much less reverse, the tide of ‘extremism’. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has re-enforced the sense of insecurity felt by most people. If a two term prime minister and a national leader can be murdered, what chances do the working masses have of leading a life without being haunted by the spectre of terrorism?

There is a lot of discussion about the prospects of the country being taken over by fundamentalist extremists who would then have control of the nuclear arsenal. The capitalist politicians and media in the US are especially focused on this danger. They have even drawn up plans to intervene to take control of the nuclear weapons to avoid fundamentalist extremists getting control of them. However, fundamentalist religious extremists do not yet have the necessary social basis of support to seize control.

Most of the immediate fears expressed by the media and capitalist politicians flow from the recent events in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in tribal areas. In these areas, local Taliban groups seized control, for example in Waziristan and Swat. Having taken control, they carried out executions, according to their interpretation of Islamist laws. A major military offensive is being conducted in the Swat valley to recapture the areas from these groups.

The Taliban groups succeeded in taking over these areas because they have support and sympathy among the local population. However, this is not the situation in the country as whole country, especially in the main cities. There are historical reasons for the support for fundamentalists and the Taliban in the NWFP and tribal areas. (These will be dealt in a further article). There are very few people in the country who really support Taliban-style Islamic law. This particular Islamic order has some echo amongst the most backward and traditionally conservative tribal and feudal-dominated areas in NWFP, in Baluchistan, in the tribal belt and South Punjab.

It is unlikely that religious extremists can take over the country in the short and medium term. So far, they failed to win the sympathy of the masses. But they can create havoc, chaos and fear through their acts of individual terrorism. They have shown, so far, that they have the capacity to strike their targets. One of the most serious aspects of the situation is that the Taliban have sympathisers in the military establishment, the state apparatus and in the ruling class. In a desperate situation, these sympathisers can provide vital support to take control openly over the state apparatus. But then the role of the ‘mainstream’ religious parties will be decisive in mobilising public support for this sort of move. A fundamentalist regime can only be established with the help of reactionary rogue elements from within the military establishment and state apparatus. This only can happen in the case of a civil war-like situation or mass public unrest, neither of which is not yet the situation. At the same time, should the PPP come to power or dominate a governing coalition, by failing to resolve the social catastrophe which exists, the extremist fundamentalists can begin to increase support and sympathy.

Yet, even now, fundamentalist extremist groups do pose a big threat to socialists and the trade union movement because of their violent nature. The trade union movement needs to recognise this looming threat and prepare to take mass action against it. The only force which can stop Pakistan from becoming another Afghanistan or Somalia is the working class and poor masses.

Rising food prices fuelling poverty

Not every one who is poor in Pakistan was born into poverty. New research shows that large numbers of poor people have fallen into poverty within their lifetime. Many have suffered this fate in Pakistan in recent months. Poverty is rising dramatically due to food inflation and shortages. The rise in food prices, in particular, hits the poor. In Pakistan more than 88% of the population earn less $2per day. They are more vulnerable than the better-off to an increase in food prices as they spend 50%-60% of their total income on food. When food becomes expensive they have to curtail other essential expenses to save themselves from starvation. It is a time of starvation for the 23.4% of the population that the government officially recognises as living below the poverty line.

The rise in poverty is mirrored by a rapid fall in the quality of life. The poor masses and the working class are fighting to buy wheat, rice or ghee (cooking oil) at whatever price they can get it. Price has now lost significance. It is the availability of food that now matters.

The majority of people in Pakistan buy their food daily. There are families in poor localities that cannot afford to buy wheat flour or cooking oil in packages of 5 kg or more. Instead, they buy it in very small quantities, mostly on credit. Now the shop keepers have stopped giving credit for food. The price of rice has also risen sharply in recent weeks. The price of edible oil has almost doubled in a year and reached an historic high. Price hikes of vegetables have further compounded the problems facing the lower middle class, working class and poor masses. The poor have been forced to neglect the health and education of their children to ensure that they are adequately fed.

The energy crisis has made life even more miserable. Power shortages have forced the closure of industries across the country. This has resulted redundancies for thousands of industrial workers. Long hours of power failures have forced the daily wage labourers to starve because they cannot get any work. There are demonstrations of daily wage and industrial workers against these power failures in many cities. Power shortages have not only afflicted industry and commercial activities but have completely disrupted the daily lives of people.

The shortage of wheat, leading to a flour crisis and the struggle of the poor masses to get their daily bread, is a mirror that reflects the state of government in the country. The contradictions that are embedded in this situation bear testimony to the utter failure of the present government. Until a short time ago, a serving chief of the army was at the helm and represented the might of the military in his unchallenged exercise of power. The military tops argued that the politicians tend to bungle their job and that a military ruler is inherently more capable of enforcing order and ensuring good governance. Pakistan’s history has repeatedly repudiated this argument.

The daily lives of the people remain so grim and gruelling that they cannot enjoy any entertainment. There is a saying that “hope is the poor man’s bread”. This present situation is robbing hope from the hearts of the poor masses. A glimpse of the desperation felt by people who have lost hope was seen during the three days of violent protest following Benazir’ s murder.

Anger and grief of masses

The riots which erupted all over Pakistan, on 27 December 2007, in a spontaneous outburst to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, have been seen before. Outbursts of anger, reflected in the burning and wreckage of public buildings, and the indiscriminate looting and plundering of private property, were not simply an expression of anger and grief by those who held Ms Bhutto in high esteem. This was an outpouring of the frustration of the oppressed classes against the regime. The majority of those involved were not criminals but ‘common people’, deprived of the basic necessities of life and abandoned by the ruling class. To them, both public and private property, are symbols of oppression. In their view, not only are the state and its institutions their enemy but also the tiny minority of the more privileged and wealthy, because they keep the masses impoverished, miserable and in a state of humiliation. The breakdown of law and order gave the poor the opportunity to take revenge and to give vent to their hatred and anger. There is a lesson to learn; when the masses become so desperate, when the opportunity arises, they will spare no-one.

A despotic regime is incapable of viewing policies from an historical perspective. Its main concern is to curb and subdue dissent. To sustain its rule and perpetuate its power, the regime applies two methods. First, it enforces laws which try to check the people’s ability to express their demands. It introduces repressive measures to restrict their freedom of movement to organise protest rallies and to demonstrate their strength. Secondly, it uses force and brutal power if it meets with resistance, with the intent of forcing the masses to comply with government policy.

However, notwithstanding these methods, the working people’s resilience and conditions forces them to raise their voice against injustice and struggle for a change. That explains the rebellions of slaves, peasants, workers and the voiceless masses in history to express their grievances and oppose the social system which oppresses them. People’s rebellions are not only politically motivated but also challenge the social, cultural and legal order that opposes them.

Under a dictatorial regime, when they are forced to submit to the orders of the government in the name of the ‘national interest’, law, stability and constitution, the masses are compelled to fight back.. Their resistance appears more violent when there is a breakdown of law and order and the mass movement finds no politically conscious, organised expression. That is what happened in Sindh after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

In the absence of an organised political platform and resistance, anarchy and violence came to the fore in some cases. There is no political party or mass organisations of the working class and masses through which they can raise their voice and express their anger. There is an urgent need to build the party of the working class and poor masses to organise resistance against the tyranny of the rotten system. There is no future and hope for the working class and poor masses in the present capitalist and feudal system. The only way forward is the socialist transformation of society to end poverty, exploitation, injustice and hunger.

The Socialist Movement Pakistan (SMP) fights to build an independent political party of the working class and the masses. The SMP supports a struggle for a party that will fight against the continuation of the dictatorship and for the democratic rights of the masses, including opposition to all repressive legislation and the right to organise mass meetings and protests. The building of democratic fighting trade unions to defend the interests of the working class is an urgent necessity. The workers and the masses need to take the necessary steps to defend themselves against threats and attack by religious extremists. For a sliding scale of wages and prices! A struggle to build a united movement of the workers, peasants, youth, poor and all those exploited by capitalism and feudalism, that will struggle for a workers’ and peasants government that would nationalise the major industries under democratic workers’ control and management and end the rule of the feudal rulers in the countryside and begin to build socialism. Only such a struggle can end capitalism and landlordism – a system dragging Pakistan into further misery, war and slaughter – and offer a way forward for the peoples of Pakistan.

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January 2008