Pakistan: Dictatorship and resistance

The movement now challenging General Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan is the greatest threat to his control of the state since he seized power in 1999. Although it is dominated by largely bourgeois and petty bourgeois elements lacking the organisational capacity to foster popular participation in the struggle against military rule, the movement itself represents an opening of the political space within Pakistan that has historically been dominated by an extremely reactionary military. While the extant political parties in Pakistan, dominated as they are by the interests of the propertied classes, are not going to promote the interests of Pakistan’s underprivileged majority once the current regime collapses, the current wave of popular protest presents an opportunity for the impoverished masses to organise and advance their own independent interests in a situation freed from the repressive authoritarianism of the military. HASSAN JAVID reports.

The proclamation of emergency rule in Pakistan is the latest episode in a saga stretching back to General Musharraf’s failed attempt to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from the Supreme Court in March 2007. Despite having tacitly supported military dictatorships throughout Pakistan’s history, the judiciary had begun to assert its own independence by investigating reports of the Musharraf government’s increasingly evident abuses of power. Consequently, the court proceeded to block the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mill, one of the largest industrial units in the country, on the grounds that the bidding process had disproportionately favoured groups with links to members of the government, and also started to look into the ‘disappearance’ of hundreds of people allegedly involved in terrorist activities. Musharraf’s subsequent unconstitutional dismissal of Iftikhar Chaudhry was an attempt to coerce the judiciary into obedience and was met with fierce resistance by judges and lawyers across the country. In scenes reminiscent of the movement that toppled Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator in 1968, rights activists and political parties rapidly joined the lawyers who had taken to the streets demanding an immediate end to military rule. As protests wracked Pakistan’s major cities, Iftikhar Chaudhry was reinstated as Chief Justice in July, following a ruling by a panel of Supreme Court judges formed to investigate the allegations levelled against him by the government.

Emboldened by the success of the movement, the Supreme Court then began to entertain petitions challenging the right of General Musharraf to remain president following the end of the sitting parliament’s term in November. The movement continued to pile pressure on the regime, moulding public opinion against the government while encouraging the Supreme Court to curtail Musharraf’s power. Faced with the prospect of a crisis of legitimacy, Musharraf, struggling to maintain a façade of democracy, sought a power-sharing deal with Benazir Bhutto, the exiled leader of Pakistan’s largest and arguably most popular political party, before finally imposing emergency rule on the eve of what was expected to be an unprecedented ruling against military dictatorship.

After imposing emergency rule on 3 November, Musharraf justified his actions by citing the need to combat the rising tide of Islamist militancy that had spilled out of Pakistan’s restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and into the valley of Swat, arguing that it was necessary for the government to expand its powers in order to prevent the country from descending into instability. However, the brutal reality of Musharraf’s emergency rule became abundantly clear as the police and security forces unleashed a campaign of unbridled repression against the thousands around the country sustaining the movement against the government’s repeated assaults on democracy.

Thus, in the two weeks following the declaration of emergency rule, the Musharraf government proceeded to suspend the constitution and purge the Supreme Court of independent-minded judges who, had been trying to check the government’s power. This crippling of the judiciary was accompanied by a sweeping, country-wide crackdown on a diverse array of ‘terrorists’: lawyers, politicians, academics, rights activists, journalists, and students. Even as militants in Swat continued to mock the state’s feeble attempts to curtail their advance, thousands of dissidents were thrown in jail for exercising their right to protest and voice opposition to the government’s increasing authoritarianism. Within hours of the proclamation of emergency, private TV channels that were critical of the regime were also forced to go off the air, allowing the government to use its monopoly over the media to then broadcast propaganda touting the ‘achievements’ of Musharraf’s eight years in power.

As seen through the eyes of the government, Pakistan under Musharraf has experienced an unparalleled period of economic growth, stability and progress. With foreign investment rising, and economic growth consistently around 7% since Musharraf took power, supporters of the regime point to proposed plans by Arab consortiums to build skyscrapers in Lahore and Karachi, the rapid influx of multinational telecom companies into Pakistan and the expansion of the financial services sector as indicators of an economic boom. Even if the assumption were to be made that Pakistan’s economic growth could have been achieved without the $18 billion received by the government since 1999 in the form of international military and financial assistance, privatisation proceeds and loan write-offs, the fact remains that the Musharraf government has actually presided over an increase in income inequality over the past eight years. Little of the wealth that has been created has trickled down to the 72% of Pakistanis who live on less than $2 a day and, by strictly adhering to the policy prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the government has instituted an economic order that facilitates greater openness to flows of capital without providing any protection for the poor.

Whilst debt repayment constitutes 27% of the government’s budget, military spending accounts for a further 18%. However, in a country where the military heads a corporate empire comprised of thousands of companies and organisations, the economic strength of the military cannot solely be judged by its formal budgetary allocation. Enjoying a virtual monopoly over sectors such as cement production and road-building, and controlling almost a third of Pakistan’s heavy manufacturing, the corporate interests of the Pakistani military have been estimated to be worth $20 billion. Given that none of the military’s economic affairs are open to civilian scrutiny or audit, the military’s continued hold on political power has also served as a means through which it has been able to enrich itself and a corrupt officer corps that has used its influence to retain privileged access to commercial projects and sources of capital. Like the comprador capitalists who have historically supported military regimes in Pakistan, the military itself has been one of the biggest economic beneficiaries of dictatorship.

The military’s gross economic corruption, however, is surpassed only by the extremely repressive effect it has historically had on politics in Pakistan. Through its repeated interventions in government, it has effectively dismantled political parties and democratic institutions while strengthening those classes and actors within society that are most likely to support its rule. In this regard, Musharraf was no exception, seeking legitimacy through sham elections that declared him to be president and through the appointment of a puppet parliament controlled by religious parties and traditional elites who had defected from the previous government. Secure in his position as army chief and president, Musharraf then proceeded to implement an agenda of ‘reform’ that included brutally crushing an ethno-national uprising in Balochistan where the people, for the fourth time in Pakistan’s history, rose up against the state to demand an end to the continuing exploitation of their underdeveloped yet resource-rich province. Similarly, in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, the military banned the media and non-military personnel from investigating the extent of the state’s military operations in the region as it indiscriminately bombed the area, at the behest of the US, in an attempt to ‘root out Islamist militancy’.

Ironically, due to its alliance with Islamist parties in parliament, the Musharraf government has found itself dealing with the contradiction of having to appease an extremely vocal fringe of Islamist extremism within Pakistan while, at the same time, combating ‘terrorism’ as part of the US’ imperialist war in Afghanistan. As such, when the government made token efforts to modify rape laws that discriminated against women, or to change blasphemy laws that unfairly targeted non-Muslims, it was forced to roll back the proposed amendments in order to not risk invoking the ire of its religious partners. Even the roots the infamous Red Mosque crisis earlier this year lay in how Musharraf had long tolerated the presence of an extremely violent, sectarian religious organisation in the heart of Pakistan’s capital city.

Consequently, as the military regime’s inadequacy and lack of legitimacy are increasingly exposed, Pakistan is standing at a unique juncture in history. Although close to 5,400 of the protestors who were jailed have now been released by the state, hundreds of the most vocal and prominent members of the movement remain incarcerated and are likely to be tried under draconian anti-terror laws by military tribunals. Furthermore, curbs on the media remain firmly in place and Musharraf has sought to introduce new laws preventing any decisions he takes during emergency rule from being challenged in any court of law. Despite this repression, however, the unflagging momentum of the movement and its increasing resonance with the populace has made it abundantly clear that the regime cannot survive for much longer.

Several factors must, however, be taken into account before sounding a final death knell for the dictatorship. Political parties, despite their initial support for the Chief Justice during the judicial crisis in the summer, have been hesitant to voice all-out opposition to the government. While parties deliberately kept on the political periphery by the regime, such as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, have mobilised against the government (and consequently been targeted by it), the religious parties and the PML-Q, the military’s major allies in parliament, have reaffirmed their support for Musharraf. Crucially, the PPP under Benazir Bhutto has thus far refused to launch a campaign against the government, largely because it hopes the military will accommodate it as a full partner within any power-sharing scheme. Given that political parties need to play an active role in mobilising the masses in the absence of any alternative organisational channels, the opportunistic stance being taken by parties such as the PPP is aimed at impeding the growth of the movement. Additionally the United States, placated by a promise of elections in 2008, has reaffirmed its commitment to supporting Musharraf, and has pledged to continue with plans to provide him with financial and military assistance in return for his continued cooperation in the ‘war on terror’.

Despite a lack of condemnation from the regime’s most significant patron, however, domestic opposition to Musharraf is likely to continue, and will be significantly boosted should parties such as the PPP decide to join the movement as Musharraf’s grip on power inevitably weakens. Although it is clear that a subsequent exercise in electoral politics in 2008 will not necessarily lead to a meaningful deepening of democracy, a historic political defeat for the military will represent a major step forward for the people of Pakistan.

FRFI 200 December 2007/ January 2008


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