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Elections in Pakistan: Defeat for pro-war parties

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The Pakistan elections on 11 May led to a landslide defeat for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the incumbent President, Asif Ali Zardari. Indeed, it was a crushing reverse for all the parties that overtly support the US “war on terror”. Moreover, with around 55.02 per cent turnout, higher than in previous federal elections, it represented a massive popular rejection of the subservience of the country to the USA and its western allies. Whatever their real intentions, parties had to denounce the constant US violations of the country’s sovereignty, and the killing of its citizens through drone attacks, to stand any chance of success.

However, although it was certainly a rebuff for the most servile agents of the western imperialist powers, it was far from being a victory for the workers, peasants and poor people of the country. Indeed, in terms of the politics of the victorious parties, it was a swing to the right with conservative and religious forces making big gains.

Nonetheless, foreign observers must remember that the electoral system in Pakistan is very far from representing the political views of the voters. It is incredibly adapted to representing the big semi-feudal landowners, the rich industrialists, bankers and business men. Much of this is done through the medium of bribing tribal and clan elders, a vital question when the electorate is over two thirds rural and most have nothing like a free vote. In addition, at a local and provincial level, the rich switch their allegiance towards the main winning party with no concern for programme or ideology.

The ruling and middle classes of Pakistan are celebrating the elections as a “victory for democracy”, or even an “historic achievement”, because they supposedly allowed a democratic transition, in other words, the army did not intervene via a coup. However, if we examine the result, it is clear that the victory of Nawaz Sharif represents the replacement of one corrupt millionaire plunderer of the country by another. And, for all Nawaz’ election rhetoric, it is the replacement of one agent of US imperialism by another.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (MLN) won 126 seats and 18 “independents” immediately joined them. They will gain a further 32 seats from the women’s quota and 5 from national minorities. These, together with support from other parties, will give them more than the 172 seats required for a majority in the house. 

People’s Party decimated

In this election, the PPP won only 39 seats, losing around 9 million votes and 79 seats. Its former coalition partner, the Awami National Party (ANP) held on to only one seat. This was the result of their five-year performance in government. It was their slavish support for the “war on terror” in general, and the military operations against the Pashtun people in the name of fighting the Taliban, in particular, which caused their defeat. Because of these operations, more than 3.5 million people have been forced into internal migration. The rural poor have faced constant humiliation, whilst thousands of civilians totally uninvolved in any acts of war or sectarian terrorism, were brutally killed.

To this must be added the neo-liberal policies of the government in favour of the banking sector, the media millionaires, textile capitalists, property developers, stock market speculators and contractors. All these parasites were able to obtain big chunks of the profits generated by rural and urban workers. On the other hand, the government ended the subsidies on petrol, gas and electricity and thus massively increased the prices of necessities for the workers and the poor.

Power cuts increased in urban areas and now last for up to 16 hours a day. In rural areas, they can even last up to 20 hours. It was the neo-liberal policy of ‘unbundling’ the electricity company, WAPDA, in early 1990s, that caused the cycle of debt crises at the root of Pakistan’s acute power problems.

Victory of the Muslim League-Nawaz

The PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) was able to gain from the mass discontent with Zardari and the PPP. The PML-N became the largest party in the election and is now forming the federal government and also regional governments in Punjab and Balochistan.

Nawaz Sherif will be elected as prime minister for the third time.

This victory also reflects the changing mood of the ruling class. Instead of Zardari and company, they also want a new ruler who will not only defend their interests in the changing geo-political situation but also continue with the neo-liberal economic policies. Nawaz' electoral victory will restore to these policies a degree of legitimacy, which had been massively weakened under the rule of the PPP. The two main economic slogans of Nawaz Sharif’s election campaign were “good governance” and “trade with India”. “Good Relations with India” means that, within the establishment, the balance of power between civil and military is likely to develop in favour of the civilian authority and the trade itself will be advantageous to the capitalists in Pakistan.

For them, “good governance” does not mean an attack on corruption, that is the lifeblood of the ruling cliques and their clients, but an attack on the whole working class and poor. It means privatisation, downsizing, rightsizing and the end of subsidies for the working class. On the other hand, it also means no tax increases for the capitalists and the rich, supposedly to attract foreign investment and build a strong national economy.

The talks with the Taliban mean a peace deal with them in the class interests of the rich. Sharif wants to attract foreign investment and to continue with the same model of development. In the election campaign, the PML-N highlighted the building of new motorways, the metro bus and bullet train projects as parts of the framework of development. Many working class people, small merchants and professionals were attracted by these development projects and the promises that they will bring wealth and dynamism to the whole of the country. But, in reality, it will be big capital in various forms that will make the biggest gains.

In the current situation, given Pakistan's deteriorating economy, further massive attacks on the working and the poor are unavoidable for the government. So we will see a further intensification of attacks.

New Pakistan

Imran Khan's Justice Party (PTI) was the other winner in the elections. Its “New Pakistan” slogan motivated the urban middle class youth and, especially, women, to go to the polls. A close look at the election results and the mobilisation shows that it was not only the prosperous, but also sections of the lower middle class, and even workers and the poor, who voted PTI in the hope of change.

In Punjab, for example, change means for them “the end of corruption”. The middle class and professionals see corruption as a key obstacle in the way of their own progress. They see that big capital takes a big chunk of profits through control of the state power and believe they are losing their “share”, even though they work much harder and are well educated. In Karachi, along with the issue of corruption, the question of peace is central for small business people and professionals.

If we look at the class interest of the PTI, it becomes clear that it represents the interests of this “middle class” and the professionals. Their programme is to save them from the crisis, even though their slogans claimed to bring a change of system in favour of working class and poor, too. Their slogans of “Pakistani nationalism” and saving the collapsing state and the concept of welfare state are actually linked to the neo-liberal model. They may have directed it towards the working class and poor, to pick up their votes but, in reality, their programme is a programme for capital and its dominance. It is in direct contradiction to the needs of the working class and actually designed to strengthen the hegemony of the middle class.

In Khyber Pukhtoon Khawa, “KPK”, on the frontier with Afghanistan, the question of war operations and terrorism are the main issues. Here, the ANP has been nearly wiped out, both on the national level and in the provincial assembly. This is the result not only of their five years of mismanagement and poor government but, in particular, of the party's policy of supporting the war on terror and repressive military operations against ordinary people.


In Balochistan, in recent years, we have seen worsening state repression but even this was intensified around the election. Thousands of young Balochs are “missing”, their bodies are often found on the roads. The Baloch people face humiliation and intimidation from the security agencies. The “democratic” elections in Balochistan were a complete failure. Turnout was less than 3%, the state and the Baloch nationalist parties revealed how distant they are from the concerns of the ordinary people, who support the national self determination struggle waged by the Baloch youth and masses. The boycott call they issued was successful and the state failed to crush the struggle through “democracy” and parliamentary elections.

Protest against rigging in the election

The situation in Balochistan is not the only sharp contrast to the media’s claims that we are witnessing a historic time for Pakistani democracy; that the elections were fairer than previous ones and that, for the first time, the democratic process allowed a peaceful transition to a new, elected government. There are also important protest movements accusing the authorities of rigging the elections. The protests in Lahore, for example, show that the urban middle class, youth and women have not accepted the result announced by the election commission.

But most important are the developments in Karachi. There, the response to allegations of rigging by the MQM is very significant. Many political analysts and young activists are arguing that it is developing spontaneously, through messages on face book, twitter and text messages. This movement illustrates the deep hatred against the MQM and its gangsterism. It demonstrates that people are coming out and are overcoming their fear of the fascistic organisations in Karachi.

This is not just a protest of the better off class, as many are arguing. There are large numbers of protestors from the lower middle class and working class. Even the MQM's base in the Muhjar community is divided. Many of their members are joining the protests against the hegemonic position of the MQM in Karachi. This has become a nightmare situation for the ruling class and the media, who now want the election commission to intervene and calm the situation so that they can implement their programme. The PTI leadership, on the other hand, wants to control these protests so they can bargain with state and present themselves as an alternative in Karachi.

In any case, the situation in Karachi shows clearly that the hopes of the ruling class, that the elections would prove a basis for a “stable” government that is not faced with protests and mobilisations, are built on sand. Indeed, as Karachi shows, there are large numbers from the working class and the petit bourgeoisie who do not intend to leave the political scene, but who could become an important precursor of future movements.

Democracy, Elections and socialism

The elections also illustrated the weaknesses of the Pakistani Left. The Awami Workers Party, AWP, founded in Autumn 2012, stood in 38 constituencies for the first time. It stood in 12 National Assembly seats, and 10 provincial Assembly seats in the Pashtun frontier province of KPK. It also stood 10 candidates in Punjab and two in Sindh. In one National Assembly seat in KPK, the AWP chairman, Fanoos Gujar, did gain a respectable 10,000 plus votes. The party’s general secretary, Farooq Tariq, got around 1800, just over 2 per cent. In Faisalabad, an AWP-endorsed power loom worker got over 3 percent. 

In general, however, the AWP’s results were disappointing; not so much because it failed to win a seat, this was hardly likely given this was its first attempt and given the undemocratic election law, the huge expenditure by bourgeois parties, their media backing etc. What was disappointing was that it failed to win a considerable vote in any single constituency or establish its relevance to working class issues in the election.

A closer analysis shows that the left in Pakistan still has very shallow roots in the working class, the oppressed nationalities and the urban and rural poor. Even where the AWP stood well known activists from working class communities as candidates, like the leader of the power loom workers, their vote was rather disappointing, only 1,000. Another major factor is that the left, including important sections of the AWP, is weak and confused on the questions of imperialism, the military operations and on democratic issues.

Instead of standing on a bold socialist programme, and fighting for it, many candidates wanted to campaign on any basis that might win seats, in other words, to become an electoralist party, failing to understand that they will not be able to compete with capitalist parties on a reformist, that is a capitalist, basis. They need to build and rely on the working class, the oppressed nations and urban and rural poor.

The fact that many of these continued to vote for the bourgeois parties does not mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with working class politics, as some of the Pakistani left intellectuals are now suggesting. It basically reflects the Left's inability to break workers away from the bourgeois parties by mimicking them with reformism and electoralism. We need to develop a revolutionary socialist programme to answer the crisis of working class politics. For the politics of social change, we need to be clear on the character of imperialism and how to fight against it, how to oppose the actions of the state and the need to support the democratic demands of the masses and the struggle for self-determination of the oppressed nationalities.

Revolutionaries have to expose the fake character of bourgeois politics, not only where elections are overtly rigged but also where they are “properly conducted”. A bourgeois parliament is always a means of class rule, not a “neutral” institution. They need to make clear that, for them, the election campaign and seats in a parliament are not ends in themselves, but merely platforms from which to raise their politics, to denounce the ruling class and its parties and to rally the workers, the oppressed, the youth.

All this, however, means that, inside the AWP and the wider Pakistan left, we need to discuss and clarify the question what kind of organisation, what kind of party we want. The supporters of the League for the Fifth International in Pakistan state absolutely clearly; we need a revolutionary, working class party, that fights for militant, democratic trade unions and organisations of the rural and urban poor, women and youth: one that is rooted in the working class areas and the workers' day to day struggles.