Political turmoil and social devastation shaking Pakistan

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2019 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The arrest on corruption charges by police, and then release of the former Pakistani Prime Minister and cricketing celebrity, Imran Khan, have been followed by a massive wave of repression aimed at destroying and decapitating his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)I. This repression, driven by the government of Shehbaz Sharif’s rightwing thirteen party coalition government, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, has the blessing of the army which de-facto rules Pakistan. Having carried through three military coups since independence, the military has always maintained a powerful grip on civilian governments. All Pakistani governments, in reality, are allowed to remain in power at the courtesy of the generals.

The corruption charges are linked to massive property speculation and corruption at the heart of Pakistani politics, which follow a trail to London. Two plush properties in central London are entangled in the movement of money between Islamabad and London. One is a mansion at Hyde Park Place, overlooking Hyde Park in London. The 10-bedroom mansion was listed for monthly rent in 2017 at £86,667. It was handed over to the British National Crime Agency as part of a settlement involving the Pakistani property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain and was linked to the recent arrest of Khan.

The other property down the road at Avenfeld House featured in the Panama Papers revealing that the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sherif’s family raised £7 million from four apartments in the building. Ownership of these properties featured in the ousting of Nawaz Sharif when he was Prime Minister in 2017. He was later cleared by the Supreme Court on the grounds that no evidence was produced proving his ownership of Avenfeld House. Now his family is back at the centre of Pakistani politics, as his brother Shahbaz Sharif is Prime Minister.

According to Khan, thousands of PTI members have been arrested. Party leaders under threat of torture have defected from the party and abandoned Khan. It is possible that they could follow these attacks with increased repression against Imran Khan and remove him from the board even possibly by assassination.

Imran Khan was elected Prime Minister, with the backing of most of the military high command in 2018. He had established a close relationship with much of the military. For the first two years, Khan and the military worked in collaboration. However, differences and clashes began to develop. Khan was removed from power in April 2022 by what amounted to a militarily backed parliamentary coup. Khan and the PTI have enjoyed mass enthusiastic support from millions, especially among the urban middle and upper middle-class layers.

Khan’s populist rhetoric against corruption and the ruling elite has resulted in him being seen as being different to the corrupt, ruling circles of capitalists and feudal landlords. This image was strengthened by his clashes with the IMF, and his resistance to accepting the package it proposed including vicious austerity measures. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Khan denounced Western imperialism’s hypocrisy and opposed backing Western imperialism against Putin’s Russia. The current Chief of Staff of the army, General Asim Munir, clashed with Khan when he was sacked by Khan from a top military intelligence position in 2019. For the ruling class, western imperialism and the military, Khan had become an unreliable maverick who wanted him out of power.

This is despite the fact that Khan himself is a multi-millionaire and is part of the corrupt capitalist class. These dramatic events have unfolded against the background of social and economic catastrophes throughout the country.

Crippling debt

The country is crippled by foreign debt, which as of December 2022 amounted to US$126.3 billion in external debt and liabilities. Of this, 77%, US$97.5 billion is directly owed by the government to various international creditors. US$27 billion of the debt is to China and the rest to various international imperialist organisations, like the IMF, World Bank and Club of Paris. The total debt of Pakistan amounts to US$US247 billion – 97% of GDP! Pakistan stands on the brink of a major debt default which would have far more devastating consequences than the crisis which erupted in Sri Lanka in 2022. In addition, it is ravaged by high inflation and was shattered by the floods which swept through the country in 2022 displacing an estimated 33 million people. The destruction of the infrastructure which took place will never be replaced as long as capitalism and landlordism continue.

Sindh, which produces approximately one-third of the country’s food supply, saw fifty per cent of its crops damaged or destroyed which is having catastrophic consequences, nearly one year after the floods hit.

The economy, as many economists argue, is on the brink of collapse. In October 2022, the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association announced that 1,600 garment mills were closed due to the withdrawal of power subsidies. Textiles account for 10% of GDP. As a result, 5 million workers lost their jobs. In April 2023, all of the mobile phone assembly units shut down putting 20,000 jobs at risk. Shortages of foreign exchange reserves and the collapse of the rupee created difficulties in importing crude oil. As a result, the largest petrol refinery was closed in February 2023. Most commentators estimated point to 18 million more people falling into poverty in 2023, with nearly 10 million youth having no work at all.

Imran Khan’s populist appeal in such a situation has been massive. The military and ruling class is determined to prevent him from contesting future elections and threatening a return to power. Yet at the same time, the ruling government alliance, with the Sharif family dynasty now firmly reinstated into power, are incapable of resolving the deepening economic, social, environmental and political crisis which are shaking the country.

The devastating economic and social situation combined with the political turmoil is further fueling the crucial national question in different areas. There is a growth of nationalism, especially in Baluchistan and Sindh. Baluchistan has seen the growth of armed groups, such as the Baluchistan Liberation Army and the Baloch National Nationalist Army. The coming to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan has also fueled the growth of groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), especially amongst the Pashtun population, which has been swelled by the arrival of nearly four million who have fled Afghanistan. Officially, 2022 saw a 27% increase in “terrorist” attacks compared to 2021. January 2023 was the bloodiest month on record with 135 killed and hundreds injured in over 40 “terrorist” attacks across the country.

Pakistan on the basis of capitalism and landlordism is not only on the brink of an economic collapse. It is on the brink of becoming a failed state. It is facing increasing centrifugal strains as support for nationalist forces increases. The very powerful military is the crucial factor holding Pakistan together.

The crisis in Pakistan is and will increasingly have crucial geo-political repercussions throughout the whole of South Asia. On the basis of the continuation of capitalism and landlordism, there is no way out of the crisis which now engulfs the country. The only possible way forward lies in the fate of the working class and the poor of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, throwing off the shackles of capitalism, landlordism and imperialism and building independent mass parties with a programme to establish governments of the workers and the poor with revolutionary socialist programmes. These could then establish a voluntary confederation of socialist states of the whole area that could introduce an emergency plan of recovery and defend the democratic and national rights of all the peoples of the area. There is no other road out of the impasse that capitalism and landlordism have plunged these societies.

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June 2023