The new Pakistani general [Musharraf], he’s just been elected — not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country, and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent. (George W Bush, 1999)
On 27 December Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party was assassinated, killed by a gunman who then blew himself and 21 other people up. The belief that Musharraf was responsible in some way for the assassination has led to countrywide violent protests and riots; over hundred people have been killed. The government claim al-Qaida have taken responsibility for the assassination, but that is not widely believed.
It is most likely that a jihadist group is responsible for Bhutto’s murder — killed as a stooge of imperialism — although some commentators (and not just Bhutto’s own supporters) have speculated about it being a collaboration with elements in the military. The protests reflect a fierce, generalised opposition to Musharraf’s government over many issues: rising unemployment and inflation, the alliance with the US, and, not least, the killing of hundreds of civilians caught in the cross fire of the military operation in the so-called tribal areas in the north of the country.
Farooq Tariq General Secretary of the Labour Party Pakistan describes the mood: “It is a very volatile, unstable, unpredictable, explosive, dangerous, impulsive, fickle and capricious political situation.”
Parliamentary elections due on 8 January have now been postponed to 18 February.
The assassination has left the western powers worrying about how, and whether, stability is now possible in Pakistan. For the sake of stability, to keep Musharraf in power, to compensate for the disappearance of all popular support for his party, the PML-Q, and to give a democratic facade to the military regime, the US brokered a power-sharing deal between the military dictator and Bhutto.
That deal was scuppered when Musharraf declared martial law, arrested the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and started locking up unruly lawyers who wanted an end to such things as the torturing of prisoners and trade unionists who were fighting privatisation and rising unemployment.
Benazir Bhutto thought twice about ending her chance to get back into power by the back door but in the end she knew, if she wasn’t going to lose more middle class supporters, she had to take a stand against the crackdown.
Apparently the US had given the green light to martial law; as far as they were concerned it was all going to be okay as long as Musharraf stood down as army chief (which he did); temporary martial law could still be part of a process to achieve “stability”. But what kind of stability were the US looking for? That remains unclear.
Some US politicians had raised the alarm about jihadist groups getting power in Pakistan and having access to the nuclear button. But the Pakistani army is still, by a long way, the strongest physical force in the country; the jihadist groups do not yet have countrywide mass support. Furthermore no section of the military is going to promote the jihadists more than they do already. With its myriad ties to industry, land and public utilities the military needs to protect its institutional predominance and keep the jihadists and all other political forces in their proper place — subordinate.
Musharraf’s regime continues to patronise jihadist and other Islamist groups (in Kashmir, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province) but only in order that they will back up their regime. In the case of the ruling Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance in the North West Frontier Province, they implement neo-liberal policies. The mainstream Islamist group Jamaat i-Islami (part of the MMA in NWFP) are now calling for a boycott of the February election. But their opposition may be more an opportunist bid to bolster their own base than a serious threat to Musharraf.
The spectre of a jihadist nuclear holocaust is not really the US’s main concern! Rather the US wants Musharraf's army to continue and strengthen its policing role in and on the border of Afghanistan — more than ever as the Taliban and Taliban-like militias become stronger.
Nonetheless the questions posed about the future of Pakistan seem more fundamental than they did just a month ago. Now people are asking: will Pakistan remain intact and is Pakistan heading for civil war?
Musharraf faces a dilemma. If he rigs the vote on 18 February, as he intended to on 8 January, there will be further violent backlash. But if he does not rig the vote he will lose. As long as he stays in power the protests will continue, workers will face more cuts and attacks as a consequence of economic fall out, Islamist violence on the streets will increase.
Yet, despite clear evidence that their strategy is stupid, the US remains committed to Plan A. As US officials told the Washington Post on 30 December, [we still want to see] “the creation of a political centre revolving around Musharraf.” Yes, but who the hell with?
In the time-honoured feudalesque style the chairmanship of the PPP has been passed on Bhutto’s husband Asif Zadari, who will act as a “caretaker” until his and Bhutto’s 19 year old son Bilawal “finishes his studies”. Crown Prince Bilawal will then take over. But Zardari, who spent some time in a Musharraf jail facing multiple charges of corruption, hates the military dictator.
Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s last civilian prime minister, is also not well disposed to the man who ousted him from power in 1999. However his party, which is now contesting the elections (after saying it would boycott them), may now be prepared to do a deal with the party of military clients and sycophants which backs Musharraf, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quadi-i-Azam, PML-Q. This in order to win a few seats in a rigged parliament; after all it could be his big chance to be a “come back kid”.
Such are the average in Pakistani civilian politics — its all about self-love, self-gain, self-advancement. The present situation is just another chapter in a depressing political history in Pakistan — of raised expectations followed by betrayal for the Pakistani workers and peasants. Attempts made at “democratic government” are followed by military rule. And each successive attempt to hold Pakistan together by a political or manufactured ideological consensus (e.g. a single Muslim identity) has only increased the ethnic and religious divisions, taken Pakistan away from secularism, given succour to the various Islamist groupings and thrown its people further into poverty.
Benazir Bhutto is now a martyr; her death has given the PPP feudal-capitalist base, and the dynasty at the helm of it, renewed status; neither of these things are deserved. That Bhutto was prepared to help Mushrraf and the US in order to pursue her own ambitions says a lot about the kind of politician she was and where she came from.
Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was in power from 1971 until 1977, when he was kicked out by the military take over of General Zia ul-Haq When Zia had Bhutto executed, he did not destroy Bhutto’s reputation for radicalism. But what did Bhutto actually stand for? He was an inconsistent nationalist, and an economic autarkist. A self-styled secularist, he also paid lip service to Islamic piety when the situation demanded it.
As foreign minister in the dictatorship of Muhammad Ayub Khan, Bhutto took Pakistan away from reliance on the US and that, in the political consensus of the time, gave him “left” credentials. But Bhutto did that only to form different client relationships — with China for instance.
In 1970 Bhutto helped provoke a political crisis which led to the secession of Bangladesh (previously “East Pakistan”). He backed the army’s murderous campaign against the secessionists, while being careful to distance himself from the political regime which oversaw it. Later he made a hypocritical peace with Bangladesh.
As prime minister Bhutto nationalised many major industries. He did not do it to serve the interests of the workers, but to develop and “modernise” Pakistan.
After their father’s death, Benazir Bhutto and her two brothers were, in the beginning at least, committed to reform in Pakistan, i.e. a “modernising” state capitalism. Benazir spent time in jail after her father’s death. For this she has been called, not unreasonably, brave.
But when she herself became prime minister in 1988, she was not so brave. She did little by way of reform; she did provide employment to some of her supporters. She complained of being stymied by the military, but she did not mount a campaign against them. She was removed as prime minister 20 months later. The popularity of her party endured and she was re-elected in 1993.
Back in power, she was able to do a little more... It is alleged that she and her husband accumulated $1.5 billion. Bhutto tried to distance herself from her husband’s “business dealings”, but court cases continue. She also backed the Taliban in Kabul (at the time, the US also thought the Taliban would bring that all-important “stability”).
When her brother Murtaza began to kick up a fuss inside the PPP he was murdered by armed policemen. It is said that the decision to carry out the execution had been taken at a very high — political — level; stories about Asif Zadari’s involvement continue to circulate.
In November 1996 Bhutto was again ousted, this time by her own PPP President.
So Bhutto’s recent championing of democracy and agitation against corruption was entirely hypocritical. The PPP many not be a homogeneous entity —some of its members are human rights activists, lawyers for civil liberties etc — but the Pakistani workers and peasants need a completely different kind of party to lead them out of this impasse. They need a party which not only opposes dictatorship — such parties are two a penny in Pakistan — but also stands for consistent democracy, freedom for the nationalities, an end to economic exploitation, land reform, secularism and so on.
It is therefore extremely important that trade unions and socialists in Pakistan maintain independence from the “mainstream” politics.
Unfortunately some leading trade unionists have attachments to the PPP and have publicly stated their belief in the party’s promises to reverse job cuts due to privatisation.
More unfortunate still, the Labour Party of Pakistan (LPP) has now joined the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), a grouping of some 20-plus parties, all of whom are boycotting the elections. In the past the LPP had firmly rejected this catch-all political bloc (it has and remains part of a leftist alliance). In December the APDM’s political complexion changed somewhat. Nawaz Sharif’s party and some of the religious fundamentalist parties left. But the Islamist Jamaat i-Islami (JI) remain! Other APDM groupings are nationalist, Stalinist etc.
The decision to work alongside JI, is surprising given the LPP’s strong record on campaigning for women’s rights and stand for secularism. The LPP seem to have thrown in their lot with the APDM because it is “anti-dictatorship”, and being anti-dictatorship seems imperative. But being anti-dictatorship is not enough.
However, socialists must still continue to build solidarity with socialists like the LPP (and other small groups) and trade unionists, in the hope that greater dialogue and international links will be of political help in the difficulties they face.