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Issue 51, October 2000

Pakistan military consolidates rule

ALL THE main political parties are still in disarray following the military coup in October 1999. The army junta is taking full advantage of this situation to carry out its anti-working class, anti-poor peasant agenda.

In August, the country's ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, announced a new plan for 'electoral reform'. From December, 21-member local councils, elected on a non-party basis, will replace appointed local officials. But Musharraf's claim that this is a step towards 'real' democracy is, in fact, a thinly-veiled attempt to stop the development of working-class organisation, undermine national opposition parties, and use the national question to help consolidate the military's grip on society.

There is no mass support at present for the restoration of civil government demanded by the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), the party of deposed premier, Nawaz Sharif. Nor is there any enthusiasm for the call for new elections put forward by the Peoples Democratic Alliance - an alliance of parties led by Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party(PPP). Endemic corruption has meant that the whole political process has been discredited.

No party offers any economic or political alternative to the existing regime. No party is addressing the issue of unemployment and privatisation. No opposition is coming from the formerly radical bourgeois parties to the huge lay-offs of workers in the public sector and the loot-sale of public assets, even though the prices of basic commodities and utilities have increased by 50% over the last nine months. The dropping of anti-imperialist and anti-market slogans by the opposition parties is a clear sign of their weakness in the face of the attacks by the military regime. The so-called left parties have given no lead in developing a mass movement.


The military junta is aiming to protect its own material interests by maintaining the high defence expenditure. In essence, the military regime is seeking a permanent, institutionalised role in politics. The elections are also an attempt to distract attention away from the alarming unemployment rate, economic crisis and price increases. During the last three years, the number of the people living below the poverty line has increased from 30% to 47%. More than 5,000 industrial units are failing because of the lack of investment.

The proposed elections will establish so-called 'district governments'. But these will be centrally controlled by the military elite. The radical nationalist and petty-bourgeois parties of the smaller provinces have rejected this plan and have declared a boycott if the elections take place. A majority of the medium-sized parties oppose the idea but have said that if the elections go ahead they will participate in them.

The elections will be held at different times in different areas, starting in eight Punjabi districts (out of a total of 108 districts nationally). These eight districts are in rural areas, well-known as military recruitment centres, where it will be easy for the army to rig the ballot. Even the first eight district elections will take five months to complete. And if the military fails to get its people elected here, the next phase may never follow.

All parties are seeking to reach some compromise with the army junta. Even Sharif has given the green light to the PML's co-ordinating committee to negotiate with the generals. The PPP is already engaged in dialogue while Imran Khan, Tahir ul Kadri and Asgar Khan, head of the PNC (an alliance of supposedly left groups), have signalled that they are in favour of the local government elections.


Despite the growing unrest among the more politically aware sections of the population, both the PML and PPP have been totally discredited and are utterly incapable of mobilising people against the government. This has led religious parties, like Jamat-i-Islami, to believe that they can fill the vacuum. The military included many so-called progressive people in the federal cabinet. But it ignored the religious parties, who are known for their close connections with the most right-wing, reactionary elements in the military and ruling elite. They are mounting pressure on the regime for a share of the pie.

The mullahs' parties have also lent support to the traders in their defiance of the regime's fiscal policies, especially the imposition of a General Sales Tax. The traders are among the chief backers of the religious groups. However, the possibility of an alliance between the mullahs and the bazaar - on the pattern of the 1979 Iranian revolution - seems far-fetched in Pakistan's context. Keeping in view the previous election results and present popular moods, religious parties are not in a position to win an election. The only possibility of religious groups seizing power is through a counter-coup led by the fundamentalist section of the army and the imposition of a more brutal repressive regime.

The non-party condition for the local elections will reduce politics to a competition between factional leaders for access to state resources, with candidates reverting to tribal and biradari (caste system) connections, patronage and corruption on an unprecedented level. This would bring back memories of the 'basic' democracy introduced by the hated military dictators, General Ayub Khan (1958-69) and General Zia ul-Haq (1977-88).


The military regime is not going to lift the ban on political activity. The official statement tries to reassure people that the local elections are a step towards the establishment of 'real' democracy. But the object seems to be a sort of gradual 'de-politicisation', exploiting the fact that politics now is a dirty word. This will only curtail participation in politics and take social fragmentation a step further.

Banning public and political activity, however, does not in any way help stabilise this military regime. In reality, it demonstrates a fear of the people. Although wider layers of the population feel somewhat dejected and are passive, this will not last for long. When people realise that the current regime can provide no solution to their problems they will have to fight back.

The present situation is reminiscent of the initial phase of Ayub's rule. At that time, too, disgust with the ousted politicians strengthened the rule of the technocrats. The political parties had surrendered without a fight and middle-class professionals profited in 'constructive engagement' with the military regime. The praise Western 'scholars' showered on Ayub's supposed success in ensuring stability, convinced many in the intelligentsia that the elixir of 'good governance' had been discovered. Within a few years not only were these assumptions proved wrong, the country met with its worst ever crisis: the bloody separation of what was East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

A combination of senior commanders and bureaucrats control the levers of power. The power resides with Musharraf, his secretariat and corps commanders. The National Security Council (a civil-military advisory body) and cabinet, both headed by Musharraf, manage day-to-day affairs. At the provincial level, the governor is the head of the executive but shares power with the relevant corps commander. For the first time in the history of military rule in Pakistan, the corps commanders have a direct involvement in the provincial administrative affairs. The gap between the military-bureaucratic elite and the people is widening.


How long will the present regime remain in power? It is difficult to say, but one thing is clear: Musharraf is unlikely to last as long as Ayub or Zia. There are far more splits in the ruling elite and no support amongst the mass of the population for the military. Another factor is the role of US imperialism. The Ayub and Zia dictatorships existed during the cold war when the military acted partially in the interests of US imperialism. The US administration repaid them generously with financial and political support. In today's changed balance of international forces, US imperialism is much more wary of openly supporting Musharraf. This was shown by Bill Clinton's recent visit. The US president signalled a closer relationship with India's BJP government than the Pakistani military.

During the last ten months the economic fundamentals have remained unchanged or, in many cases, worsened. The debt to GDP ratio is nearing 100%. Forty percent of state revenue goes on defence spending and the remainder does not even cover the debt servicing.

Pakistan is a country where provincial autonomy - supposedly enshrined in the constitution - does not exist. Army rule is taken as ethnic rule. Under the present capitalist and feudal set-up, finances and jobs are not distributed among the provinces equitably. Regionalism will grow, particularly as 75% of Pakistan's revenue comes from the smaller provinces, yet almost all of it is spent in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore (Punjabi cities).


Unlike the previous military dictatorships, which had the support of a more homogenous ruling class, Musharraf's regime lacks a well-defined constituency and support base. The clerics and religious parties are uneasy about the regime. Big business, or what remains of it, does not support Musharraf. Possibly the only support comes from the insignificant Westernised sections of society, and from the donor-dependent, NGO sector.

The only way such a regime manages to stay in power is through the disillusionment of the masses and the utter failure of the 'left' parties to mount any significant challenge to military rule.

The regime will be forced to take desperate measures in the face of mounting opposition. There are two frightening possibilities: the imposition of martial law to restore the regime's control, albeit temporarily; or a counter-coup within the army led by the Islamic fundamentalist wing. In either case, the workers and poor sections of the society will suffer. The military could resort to war with India in an attempt to cling onto power. Both these possibilities would be increased in the event of a military counter-coup.

The masses of the Asian sub-continent are faced with a race against time. The priority is to create a strong socialist movement to overthrow the Musharraf regime and save the region from further poverty and oppression and the danger of another Indo-Pakistan war.

Aijaz Hussain

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