Pakistan: Musharraf's referendum and the Karachi blasts - The beginning of the end

Lal Khan, editor of the Asian Marxist Review looks at the current situation in Pakistan. The economy is in ruins and Musharraf is under attack from all sides. The referendum he arranged to bolster support for himself has been a failure. The Americans are getting tired of him, and he has got nothing in return for his subservience. In desparation he is resorting to increased repression, as the attacks on the striking public sector workers in Quetta show.

The suicidal car bombing at the Karachi Sheraton car park killing 15 including 12 French experts is manifestation of the rapidly deteriorating conditions of the Pakistan state and society. This blast not only ripped through the bus but has also shattered the already dwindling confidence of the Musharraf dictatorship. More turmoil and instability for the dictatorship looms large on the horizon. At the same time a new wave of class struggle has been ushered in by the Karachi steel mills workers' victory and the brilliant strike movement of the state workers in Baluchistan. The next period will see this class movement gaining strength and revolutionary conditions can emerge. Similarly the further aggravation of the crisis of Pakistani capitalism can unleashed reactionary acts like these Karachi blasts aggravating the whole situation.

The referendum was a blunder that Musharraf, like most dictators, committed in an attempt to perpetuate his rule. There is a dialectical paradox that most despotic rulers seem to become victims of superiority complexes and notions of populous megalomania at the time when the process of their demise begins to unfold. Their alienation in the heavily guarded corridors of rulership erodes sanity from the psychology of these rulers. Musharraf had really started believing that he was the messiah this beleaguered nation has been waiting for ever since its inception.

The concocted facts and figures of economic revival poured into Musharraf by the camarilla of bureaucrats and political sycophants made him believe that he had made this economic miracle of accumulating record foreign reserves of $5 billion in the state treasury. What he could not comprehend, was that accumulation of this foreign exchange where exports have declined by about 8%, imports by 10% and the weakening of the dollar, is not a positive economic sign but indicates a crisis. This is especially true when the growth rate is a dismal 2.4% (the lowest in 50 years) and the ratio of the population living below the poverty line has crossed the 50% mark (the highest in 50 years). There has been an enormous price hike especially in the basic utilities, plunging the already impoverished masses into greater depths of misery. The dictats of the IMF, being carried out most proficiently and rapidly by this dictatorship have dealt huge blows to the lives of the masses.

According to the Daily Times, Lahore, "The 1.3 billion poverty reduction and growth facility extended by the IMF to Pakistan has triggered a price hike in the country, according to the experts. They say the poor have been hit specially hard. As per its agreement with the IMF, Pakistan has been obliged to 'reform' various sectors (resorting to retrenchments and downsizing), broaden its tax base and impose an across the board GST (general sales tax) on all consumer items, steps, it is argued that are hurting the poor." (May 6, 2002)

The regime started its downsizing and other attacks from Baluchistan which it thought was the most backward province and it could easily subdue the workers. Dialectically this turned into its opposite. The daring strike movement of the workers of different state departments in Quetta by the PTUDC leadership in Baluchistan has exhibited yet again the legendary resilience and courage of the proletariat. Even if this strike does not end in a victory, the experience itself has made a qualitative change to these striking workers that will give them enormous confidence in the battles ahead.

The class character of this regime is also exposed clearly in the field of taxation. 82% of taxes are directed to the oppressed classes (in the form of indirect taxation) and only 18% of taxes are directed to the less than 5% of the ruling classes. And the rotting bourgeoisie of Pakistan continues to default and evade these taxes through the corruption of the state.

The CBR (Central Board of Revenue) is expecting a short fall of Rs 107 billion in taxes this year. The end result could be even worse than this. This is through tax evasion by the capitalists and the IMF conditionality of lowering tariffs. This burden of this crime would again be shifted onto the poor.

The cracking down and elimination of Islamic fundamentalism has proved to be another farce. The pre- and post-Jan 12 anti-fundamentalist gestures of Musharraf were not only taken seriously but were appreciated and supported by the liberals and the so-called lefts. They sowed illusions of Musharraf's progressiveness in the minds of workers and masses. It was only in the AMR (Asian Marxist Review), the fortnightly Class Struggle (Urdu) and articles on the website that rejected these notions and proved the point that fundamentalism, being the cancerous outgrowth of the body of capitalism, cannot be surgically removed by a capitalist state already in decay.

Now the chickens have come home to roast. In an economic and social decline, Musharraf's US-sponsored so-called anti-fundamentalist manoeuvres are producing a backlash. The spate of bomb blasts and other acts of individual terrorism across the country shows the failure of the state. These could result in disastrous consequences for Musharraf himself. With Musharraf's continued alliance with Washington, the threat of his assassination is ever present. He packs a silver-plated derringer in his chest pocket and only leaves his office in an armour-plated Mercedes using two others as decoys. The fears from within the military establishment were also one of the main factors that led Musharraf to embark on this pathetic referendum. This was a desperate attempt to get so-called legitimacy in state and society.

Musharraf was also worried that a new parliament to be elected in October would be hostile to his ambitions. So he engineered a referendum giving him another 5 years to rule as president. But the referendum campaign was so transparently bogus that it even dismayed those sections that supported him. With the opposition's boycott Musharraf was left to crow like a shameless dictator about his 98% victory margin.

The conventional wisdom is that he is firmly in control of his core constituency, the military. But that is also not the whole truth. His actions of the last few months have exposed the rifts within the army. Musharraf has reshuffled his military commanders three times in six months, the first, October 7, was on the eve of the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan. Conservative army officers are not happy with the US forces operating with free will in several areas of Pakistan especially North Waziristan on the Afghan border.

On March 27, US FBI and CIA agents were involved in the arrest of Osama Bin Ladin's lieutenant Abu Zubaydah and 50 other al Qaeda activists in Faisalabad and Lahore. While the Americans were present in the raid, Pakistan's own Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate was kept largely in the dark about the operation. This shows the distrust of the ISI by the Americans and Musharraf's faction of the army and state agencies.

The ISI dubbed as "the invisible government" has been going its own way too far and for too long as an independent organisation. It has been largely in command of the foreign policy in Afghanistan, Kashmir and other strategic foreign involvements of the Pakistani state for more than three decades. Hence it is a utopian fantasy than Musharraf could rein in such a belligerent organisation just by issuing orders through a corrupt state apparatus. There are other important factors involved in this rogue's character, the most criminal being the billions of dollars of black money that the ISI has usurped during its operations in the US-sponsored Afghan Jihad in the 80s.

Even after September 11 the loyalties of the Pakistani state were still divided. At least 5 key ISI operatives - some retired, some active - stayed on to help their Taliban comrades prepare defence in Kandahar against the Americans, according to Time magazine. None have been punished for their disobedience.

The same article says: "What is well documented is that half way through the US campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials were still allowing military and non-lethal supplies across the border to the Taliban." The ISI - Taliban/al Qaeda nexus is far from broken. And this is one of Musharraf's biggest worries. The ISI is notoriously famous about the use of violent methods in domestic politics. It has set up virulent front organisations based on religious, nationalistic and ethnic prejudices to keep the Pakistani political landscape under its firm control.

In the last few decades these organisations have been playing a vicious role in splintering the class movement along ethnic, religious and nationalistic lines. The ideological betrayal of the traditional mass party PPP (Pakistan People's Party) and trade union leaderships gave the ISI and these parties a free hand. The Karachi blasts speak volumes of these conflicts within the state and between the different agencies representing various mutually hostile fractions of state and finance capital.

When Musharraf announced his referendum plans to his powerful corps commanders, many initially opposed the idea, suggesting he stick to the constitution and let parliament choose a president. According to Newsweek, Musharraf retorted: "Do you want me to be left at the mercy of Benazir Bhutto, who is sure to win such a poll?" In late March Musharraf sidelined some of the commanders who had opposed his referendum. What makes all this risky for him is that in most cases the reshuffled military leaders are still on duty in other posts.

But the biggest blunder which Musharraf committed was to make himself totally subservient to the Americans - though he had little choice. In a capitalist system and state the chance of defying the economic and military might of the biggest imperialist power in history are minimal. In a capitalist economy all economic policies have to be in the line of financial oligarchy dominating the scenario. One cannot afford enmity with crocodiles while living in marshes and water. So is the case with America and the capitalist economy.

But the Americans are the most untrustworthy of friends history has yet seen. They killed Zia ul-Haq who fought the Afghan Jihad for them, dumped Noriega in spite of all his services, and assassinated some of their closest military dictators when they became liabilities for the interests of US capitalism.

Smelling the growing dissent against Musharraf in state and society, the US press, foreign relations committee and other big wigs in Washington are murmuring their rising resentment towards him. Not a single western capital has "greeted" Musharraf on his "landslide" referendum victory. This means that Musharraf's honeymoon with the west in the "war against terror" is finishing - fast. His domestic isolation is being compounded by the rapid failure of his foreign policy triumph.

Hence a sharp rise in the repression. This exudes utter desperation on the part of Musharraf. The first beginnings of mass retaliation are also in action. The Quetta strike spearheads this new upheaval that is in the offing. The state is moving to greater brutality and becoming more atrocious with every passing day after the referendum. The days of the Musharraf dictatorship are numbered. If he goes through a coup or is forced to step down due to a mass revolt the processes of his demise are already in play. But his demise won't bring any stability either. But this increase in repression can have an opposite effect. It can provoke a movement on a much larger scale.

The possibility of the Musharraf dictatorship crushing the movement now is remote. The west, the media and even sections of the Pakistan state and bourgeoisie will be forced, once again to resort to Benazir and the PPP in wake of a rising mass discontent and upheaval. Their aim would be to use Benazir to dash the hopes of a rising people and divert the tide of a mass upsurge through reformist rhetoric as she did in 1986 and to some extent in 1993.

This time it will not be that easy for Benazir. Firstly Musharraf has announced most of the reforms possible under capitalism. Yet he has miserably failed. It is one thing to announce reforms, it's another thing that the system has no capacity left to implement these reforms. Yet he has miserably failed. So just on reformist rhetoric she can't swing the mass support towards her. Hence she will not be able to repeat the act. She might use some left rhetoric but that can be more dangerous for her as it could open floodgates that could sweep away her own class interests. So if Musharraf is in a dilemma, Benazir faces a bigger one. That is even before coming to power.

The situation for the masses is also very unfortunate. They are being subjected to terrible conditions through capitalist exploitation and still are devoid of a clear way out of this misery. They also have no choice or alternative except the PPP. That is the burden of tradition the masses have to face at the beginning of a new movement. A vast section of masses will inevitably converge around the PPP as the movement begins. But as the movement picks up momentum it will have decisive impacts on the PPP and the political situation in general. A mass movement is bound to erupt. If it does not succeed in overthrowing the present exploitative system then bomb blasts, terrorism, fundamentalism reaction and barbarianism will devastate this tragic society.

The movement in the industrial field on the real issues of privatisation, downsizing, poverty, price hikes and other class questions will have a much bigger radicalising impact on the overall mass movement. If the ruling classes tries to derail it through elections and parliament it is doubtful that this movement will stop at that.

A new period of turbulence opens up. The economy is in tatters. This economic deterioration has lead to the beginning of the end of Musharraf dictatorship. No other military or civil ruler could improve this economy under capitalist rule either. When the oppressed classes rise after such a long period of inertia and lull - after so many betrayals and deceptions - they will emerge in gigantic upheavals unstoppable by the ruling sate and imperialism. This will further radicalise the PPP with the Marxists in the party will become a major force capable of changing the course of the party back to its socialist origins of 1968-69.

The resurgence of revolutionary forces in the trade unions, youth, women and other oppressed strata of the population will substantiate the Marxist forces in the PPP. Clear class lines will be drawn, a new class war will ensue. With a clear Marxist programme, perspective and leadership, no force on earth will be able to stop it from achieving its decisive victory, the overthrowing of the rotten capitalist system through a socialist revolution.