The Coup in Pakistan

The following brief article has been written on the basis of a telephone conversation with a leader of the Pakistan Marxists at 11.00 am London time, on 13th October.

The following brief article has been written on the basis of a telephone conversation with a leader of the Pakistan Marxists at 11.00 am London time, on 13th October.

The present coup was not unexpected. It had been in preparation for weeks if not months. The deep crisis of Pakistan society, necessarily found an expression in splits at the top of the army, and clashes between the army and the government of Nawaz Sharif. Things came to a head over the debacle suffered by Pakistan in the recent Kashmir conflict. This was seen as a humiliation for Pakistan, and Nawaz Sharif attempted to make the army into a scapegoat.

The perpetrators of the coup represent a so-called nationalist tendency among the army chiefs. They pretend to be anti-American, and would have been infuriated by Washington's pressure on Pakistan to back down over Kashmir. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Pakistan is no longer seen by Washington as such an essential point of support in Asia. Consequently, America has switched to backing India. Matters came to a head when Nawaz Sharif attempted to dismiss general Pervaiz Musharraf, the Pakistan Chief-of-Staff, while on a journey to Sri Lanka. Apparently they attempted to stop him from landing in Pakistan and his plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Karachi airport where he was met by a large contingency of soldiers.

So far the coup has been relatively peaceful, although it could have turned out to be a bloodbath. There was some shooting in Islamabad where rival factions of the army and police fought each other briefly. However, the mood of the masses has been quiescent. Some people expressed relief at the removal of the unpopular and reactionary Nawaz Sharif government, which most Pakistanis learned from the television. The general mood is one of indifference, although that can change depending on how events develop.

The plotters do not seem very sure of themselves. A statement was promised from general Musharraf, which took nine hours to materialise. Finally the general appeared on television and spoke only for a few minutes, giving no real idea of what he intended to do. Most likely he does not know himself! The divisions in the army tops means that this dictatorship will probably have an extremely weak and unstable character. They do not have many options, but they do have a serious dilemma.

Having seized power by unconstitutional means, they must now decide what to do with Pakistan's constitution, which specifies the death penalty for overthrowing the existing government. Since, presumably, the generals have not got tired of life there is no question of them standing down while permitting the present constitution to continue. They must either suspend it or abolish it, but the abolition of the constitution means martial law, and it is not clear whether they have sufficient strength to impose this.

It appears that a section of hard-liners would like to go all the way and introduce a full dictatorship. In this they would have the enthusiastic backing of the fundamentalists. However the faction around general Musharraf, although extreme nationalists, are not directly linked to the fundamentalists. Nevertheless, pressure is building up among a section of the army leadership to take action against Nawaz Sharif and other Muslim League leaders. The question has even been raised of expropriating their wealth, although in practice this will probably remain just hot air.

The Americans are watching all these events with considerable alarm. In recent years, the policy of American imperialism and the CIA has undergone a change. They no longer favour coups and military dictatorships, having burned their fingers with such regimes on more than one occasion. It is sufficient to recall the US's conflict with general Noriega in Panama to illustrate this point. It is even possible that the CIA had a part in the assassination of general Zia, the last Pakistan dictator about ten years ago. Washington now prefers weak "democratic" regimes which they can more easily pressurize and control. Therefore the present coup in Pakistan was immediately condemned by the Americans and (naturally) their stooges in London.

Lacking any perspective, the so-called anti-American nationalists who have seized power in Islamabad have immediately entered into negotiations with the US embassy. Given the bankrupt state of Pakistan's economy, Washington is in a position to apply heavy pressure which may result in some kind of compromise. Possibly, Musharraf will suspend the constitution, alleging some pressing reason of state, enlist the services of Pakistan judges (always ready to support the winning side) to provide this with some legal camouflage, and then set up some kind of interim government with a view to handing back power to civilian politicians at a later date.

However, this is only one possibility. Given the deep crisis of Pakistan capitalism, anything is possible. If a compromise is not reached and negotiations with the Americans break down, the hard line faction may get the upper hand and move in the direction of imposing martial law, with all that that means for the labour movement and working class of Pakistan. Since independence the army has ruled Pakistan for nearly half of its 52 year history. These military dictatorships have always been characterised by their brutal suppression of the Trade Unions, the PPP and the working class in general. There is no reason to suppose that this time would be any different.