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Issue 43, November 1999

Military Coup in Pakistan

THE SUDDEN military coup of Tuesday 12 October 1999 heralds more instability for Pakistan and the end of what few democratic rights remained. It will considerably increase tension in the Asian sub-continent where the two major powers - India and Pakistan - have recently acquired nuclear capability. It reflects the complete inability of the feudal and capitalist elites of the neo-colonial world to take society forward, a fact illustrated by the widespread indifference which greeted the coup by the mass of the population.

Pakistan is suffering fundamental social and economic crises. Its state institutions are collapsing, corrupt officials cream-off millions of rupees, ministers run personal fiefdoms giving jobs to family and friends, bribery is the only means of getting anything done, the ruling elite is split, and religious and sectarian strife is rising. A complete breakdown in society is threatened and it is the working class and poor peasantry who have paid the price. Now this military takeover will be used to step up the exploitation of the working class and poor.

The coup was signalled by the halting of broadcasts on Pakistan TV. This followed two bulletins by prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, announcing the sacking of the chief of army staff, General Perves Musharraf. Airports, government buildings, and senior politicians' homes were surrounded by soldiers. The national media was taken over by the military. Mobile phone networks and some international landlines were taken out of operation. Musharraf announced the sacking of the government.


Sharif's right-wing government, led by the PML-N (Pakistani Muslim League - Nawaz) was elected in January 1997. Since then, over 100,000 workers have been sacked, utility bills have rocketed, and food subsidies have been slashed. Further devastating job cuts in state industries and the public sector were planned. At the same time, Sharif and his coterie have amassed enormous wealth through direct pilfering of state coffers, tax avoidance, and kickbacks from lucrative local and international contracts.

Sharif was widely hated. He cracked down on workers' rights to demonstrate and strike, and banned some state-sector unions. 'Democracy' was a farce. The extreme social and economic crisis, and Sharif's drive for power, accentuated the divisions within the ruling elite.

Friction between the military and the governing party was compounded by the fact that, under pressure of US imperialism, Sharif had been pushing for cuts in military spending and attempting to negotiate with the Indian ruling class over the future of Kashmir. This was a major threat to the military's power and prestige. Pakistan's occupation of Kashmir allowed the army to demand - and receive - a large slice of the state budget. The generals also control lucrative smuggling operations and commercial activity in Kashmir.

Sharif initially supported the armed incursion into Indian Occupied Kashmir, partly to divert people's attention away from economic hardship, but also to curry favour with the military elite. But he was forced by US imperialism into recalling Pakistani forces in July. The generals regarded this as a humiliating blow to their prestige and signalled their discontent. The coup was triggered by the subsequent sacking of General Musharraf while he was in Sri Lanka. The lack of an outcry from the PML-N leadership showed up Sharif's isolation.


Initially, the military wanted to deal with Sharif and then put in place a safe caretaker government. This would have included generals inside a new cabinet, or acting through the national security council.

Initially, the generals were publicly split over whether the coup should go ahead - an indication of their resticted room for manoeuvre. One of the major problems facing them is the increasing demands for more autonomy from the smaller provinces and national minorities in Pakistan - a radicalisation brought on by the dire social and economic situation they face. The ruling elite is seen as a chauvinist Punjabi elite. The same applies to the army. The army has long been split between those influenced by US imperialism, and those who are more supportive of Islamic fundamentalism. It also reflects their fear of the masses moving into action against an open military dictatorship.

Musharraf's delay in announcing the military's plans showed that the generals do not have a thought-out political plan. More hardline sections of the military probably felt that a transition to a nominally civilian regime could reopen the political instability they instigated the coup to deal with. Musharraf was also involved in a struggle to consolidate his own position. Only three out of seven corp commanders supported his actions. Those who opposed Musharraf have now been arrested and face court martial.

Once the option of a civilian government was ruled out, the generals had to take a different course of action. And they had limited time. Not to act could have led to a dangerous power vacuum opening up. The national assembly was due to meet on Friday 15 October and the military feared it might take action independently of the army and pose a threat to the takeover.


It was for these reasons that the generals announced a state of emergency early on Friday morning. They suspended the constitution, senate, national assembly, and provisional assemblies. All senior ministers at federal and provincial level and their advisers were sacked. Despite denials, the military are moving towards implementing martial law. They have a taste for power and may be unwilling to let go. Martial law would pose a serious threat to socialists and worker activists in Pakistan. Islamic fundamentalist groups also may feel encouraged to attack socialists, activists, and even secular liberals.

However, the new regime is unstable. Its policy will zigzag between taking action against the most corrupt elements of Sharif's regime and, if necessary, against the masses and national minorities. They have started by freezing the Sharif family's bank accounts. This has the advantage of being a very popular move.

Transition to a civilian government is not an immediate prospect. Under pressure the generals may be forced to concede some sort of 'civilian' administration eventually. This is why the generals did not immediately sack president Rafiq Tarar. But given the extreme volatility in the military and the country in general, the situation can change daily.

The opposition of the US and other imperialist powers to full martial law is partly due to public opinion internationally and the possible repercussions amongst the masses in the neo-colonial world. The CIA, on 20 September, publicly warned the military about taking action against the government. Their main fear is over increased tension between India and Pakistan. One of imperialism's worst nightmares is of so-called 'rogue' states developing nuclear capability. The US is finding it hard getting its policies adopted in the region. Exasperation with Sharif's inability and refusal to control corruption and implement IMF structural adjustment programmes led to the World Bank and IMF holding back $280 million-worth of loans.


Large sections of Pakistan's population have welcomed the government's demise and have illusions in the military. Fifty percent of the population is under 25 years old with little or no memory of the last military dictatorship. Many hope the coup will lead to some stability and better social and economic conditions. These hopes, however, will be cruelly dashed.

Some activists recognise the return of the military as a setback, and amongst the most combative there is a willingness to fight back. However, the workers' organisations are relatively weak. None of the trade union leaderships launched any decisive campaign against the vicious attacks of Sharif's government and many workers have become demoralised.

Feudalism and capitalism in Pakistan has meant only poverty, suffering and wars for the workers and peasants. Only the Pakistani masses led by the working class can guarantee genuine democratic rule and end social deprivation.

It is vital for socialists and activists in Pakistan to launch a fightback against this latest military clampdown. Decisive action now will prepare the best activists for a change in consciousness among wider layers once the illusions of social stability are undermined by peoples' everyday experience. This will lead to explosions of anger. As the example of Suharto in Indonesia shows, not even the most brutal dictator can remain in power once the masses move. If the best activists are well prepared, these movements could challenge feudalism and capitalism, raising a socialist alternative not only in Pakistan but throughout the Asian sub-continent.


Extracted from the CWI statement on Pakistan, 15 October. The full statement is available from the CWI:

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