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Issue 54, March 2001

Military protect Pakistan elite

LATE LAST year Pakistan's military rulers struck a deal allowing the former president, Nawaz Sharif, to avoid corruption charges and flee to Saudi Arabia. His departure shocked people even more than the sudden disappearance of the Sharif family from the political scene. After a year-long propaganda campaign against Sharif, the convict has been set free by government order.

The widespread anger this deal has provoked shows that the reaction from below is brewing against the military junta. Its claims that it came to power to save the country from a rogue prime minister and would cleanse a corrupt political system lie in tatters.

Sharif's exile, George W Bush's US presidential election victory, and the hurdles created to avoid the prosecution of Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, show that there is no impartial judicial system in the world. The judiciary and other state institutions are manipulated by the ruling classes for their own convenience. Sometimes, powerful sections of the world ruling classes arbitrate in the disputes of another country. In Sharif's case, they arbitrated between different feuding factions of the Pakistani ruling elite.

Sharif's exit has proved that his political philosophy was only to enrich himself and his clan. Once he had run out of political options, he tried to salvage the wealth he had accumulated abroad. One thing is clear: at the time of their departure to Saudi Arabia, the Sharifs were as unpopular as when they were ousted in October 1999. The people object to the way Sharif has been allowed to leave and ask why those who plundered the country have been let off the hook.


At first, the US ambassador denied his government played any role. Now the US administration has confirmed that it was involved. Considering that Sharif signed the Washington statement of July 1999 agreeing to the withdrawal of troops in the Kashmir conflict with India - under pressure from Bill Clinton - the US president could not remain indifferent to his fate. The involvement of the Saudi royal family, with whom Sharif has close personal and business relations, comes as no surprise either.

The power exerted by the US and Saudi Arabia is mainly financial. The primary concern of the military government, on the other hand, is to preserve its rule, so it is prepared to accept the most humiliating deals, indifferent to the feelings of the masses. The people only ever figure in the establishment's considerations when they take to streets and attempts to suppress them fail.

What moves the establishment are its own interests. The ruling class reacts to the pressure exerted by Middle Eastern elites because they support Pakistan's establishment at a time when it is targeted by the West for its nuclear weapons programme, its support for the Afghanistan Taliban, and its confrontations with India. The Middle East supplies oil to Pakistan at cheap prices with deferred payments. These advantageous terms do not benefit the poor masses, of course. They are exclusively used by the ruling classes.

Instead of holding free and fair elections, the establishment always intervenes in the interests of the ruling classes to bring in the leadership of its own liking. This seems to be happening again. The military regime's effort to create a 'moral legitimacy' has come crashing to earth.


Another consequence of Sharif's release is to feed the discontent of the peoples of the smaller nationalities once again. What is the justification behind releasing one set of politicians while keeping those from the smaller provinces in jail? The nationalist parties of the smaller provinces have already started exploiting the ruling military establishment's discriminatory attitude. The Sindhis argue that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Mohammad Khan Junejo and Benazir Bhutto (three Sindhi former prime ministers), all fell victim to conspiracies hatched by the Punjabi-dominated military establishment. They also point out that the first elected prime minister from Sindh, Zulfikar Bhutto, was sent to the gallows despite repeated calls for clemency by the entire Muslim world. On the other hand, a convicted prime minister from Punjab has been provided a safe exit.

The masses of the smaller provinces think of themselves as a deprived lot and see the 'federation' as taking unjust decisions against them, be it with regard to financial resources or water allocations. The military government's so-called devolution plan has added to their fear that it will further reduce provincial autonomy.

The BBC has linked the decision on Sharif to Pakistan's economic predicament. The military government does not admit this but, given the deteriorating financial situation of the country and the threat of default as a result of the post-nuclear sanctions, it is facing an economic impasse. The junta is increasingly worried of an explosion from below.


It is pertinent to recall the report of the State Bank of Pakistan (July-September 2000), which indicates that inflation has risen and price hikes are inevitable in utilities and petroleum. Efforts to increase tax revenues have fallen significantly short of their targets. The compulsion to rely on Western financial institutions remains. This means the International Monetary Fund dictating low public spending, fewer new jobs (if any), job cuts in sectors being prepared for privatisation, and a higher rate of unemployment which is compounding the already bad job situation, especially for young people.

With the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader, Benazir Bhutto, already in exile, Sharif's flight to Saudi Arabia means that the leaders of the two main 'liberal' parties are now banished from the country. This is a major boost for the religious parties. The political landscape has been cleared exclusively for those who have the support of reactionary Muslim fundamentalist forces. This is a dangerous development for the poor.

The military government will try to install a prime minister of its own choice. The ban on all political activity and the exile of the PPP and Muslim League leaders is a good opportunity for the army to get the desired result because it is easier for them to bargain with the weaker liberal groups and religious parties.

Though it seems that the junta has manoeuvered well to take hold of the political process, it is also the biggest loser in this game. Not all of its problems have been resolved by the Sharif case. The more serious problems are rooted in the feudal-capitalist state structure upheld by the military. The army is an instrument for safeguarding the interests of national and international big business. It makes no real difference who is on the scene, whether that is Sharif, Bhutto or General Musharraf. All of these represent feudal-capitalist class rule.


Sharif's exit has created a political vacuum. The masses are burdened by price hikes and feel betrayed by Sharif's exile but are not taking to the streets because they also distrust the old political leadership. The religious parties will try to exploit this opportunity with the help of their like-minded generals.

The most disappointing aspect is that the old 'left' has abandoned the politics of raising any alternative and have either become part of the bourgeois parties or have sunk into the oblivion of the NGOs (non-governmental organisations). There is a desperate need to build a genuine socialist alternative to the present political and social chaos, the imminent threat of reactionary fundamentalist forces and the danger of the break up of society. That requires building support for a programme aimed at the social, economic and national problems, all of which are intertwined.

A socialist alternative would start from the fact that the junta, religious groups and other feudal-capitalist leaders, like Sharif and Bhutto, have consistently betrayed the Pakistani masses, and convincing the workers and poor that capitalism means unemployment, poverty and wars. The real choice is between the struggle to overthrow capitalism and feudalism or continued poverty and talibanisation (brutal state repression).

A socialist federation of Pakistan would release the resources needed to wipe out social deprivation and poverty. It would create the basis for fulfilling the national aspirations of the smaller nationalities and protecting the rights of all nationalities. Only a genuine socialist alternative with a democratically-elected and accountable leadership can put forward such a programme.


Aijaz Hussain

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