National Sections of the L5I:

Political turmoil in Pakistan and the crisis of bourgeois rule

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Pakistan has reached another political impasse. On August 15, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Islamabad as two massive mobilisations and marches from Lahore reached the city with high hopes of “change” and even “revolution”. Since their arrival, the demonstrators have been occupying central sites in the capital city.

Although they are coordinating their actions, the two marches are politically and organisationally separate. One is the Azaadi March (Independence March), led by Imran Khan, a former captain of the national cricket team and winner of the World Cup, and the founder of the bourgeois populist Pakistan Justice Party, PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf). The other is the Inqlabi March (Revolutionary March), led by the sufist cleric Tahirul Qadri, himself the leader of the Pakistan People's Movement PAT (Pakistan Awami Tehrik).

The Azaadi March focuses on fighting against the rigged elections in 2013 and for democratic demands. Its social base is the middle class, including some of its upper layers. While the Sharif family has done very well from the premiership of Nawaz Sharif and has 82 of its members in federal or provincial government posts, many capitalists feel they have been denied the influence on government to which they think they are entitled.

Whilst rigged elections are common in Pakistan, Khan's critique focuses on the fact that the election commission itself has effectively been under the control of the Pakistan Muslim League, PML-N, the party of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

On the other hand, the Inqlabi March is fighting for a series of social and political reforms. Its social base is the lower middle class and the deprived sections of society. It has put forward demands, such as greater autonomy for local governments, that would give these layers a bigger role in the current political system. Although the content of his programme is petit-bourgeois reformism, Qadri and his supporters have given it a more radical edge by references to revolution and pointing to the experience of the Russian, French and Chinese revolutions.

Imran Khan has tried to dramatise the situation by threatening to storm Prime Minister House, the seat of government, if Nawaz Sharif does not resign. Qadri has publicly accused both the prime minister and his brother, Shabaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab province, of responsibility for the killing of 14 PAT supporters by police in Lahore's “Model Town” area on June 17. He has not only called for their resignations but demanded the death penalty for both of them. On the other hand, he has also denied that the protestors have any intention of storming parliament or Prime Minister House.

Government in crisis

The Government is desperate to bring the situation under control. At first, it tried to establish order by banning the marches and blocking all entrances to Lahore and Islamabad with shipping containers, backed up by a huge police deployment. The PML-N also tried to organise counter mobilisations, and even physical attacks on the Azaadi March in Gujranwara, but failed miserably to deter the marchers. On their way to Islamabad, they were greeted by thousands of people in every city on their route. There have also been solidarity sit-ins in other cities, including Lahore and Karachi.

Just 15 months after its victory in the May 2013 election, the government of Nawaz Sharif is facing its worst crisis and struggling to remain in power. Its credibility has collapsed as it failed to make good any of its promises. There has been no progress in overcoming the shortage of energy. Power cuts remain as long, and as frequent, as ever.

Poverty and unemployment are still high. The government has even stepped up attacks on the working class and poor at the same time as prices of electricity, gas and petrol have risen. In addition, Nawaz is also planning another massive privatisation programme on the orders of the IMF and World Bank.

The crisis in the ruling class is a reflection of these social and economic conditions. Pakistan is once again in deep instability and turmoil and the situation is set to get worse. The semi-colonial position of Pakistan and its domination by imperialism have meant the imposition of neo-liberal policies since the early 80's and these have devastated its economy.

Wholesale privatisations, deregulation, job cuts and the cutting of social services have increased the gulf between the haves and the have nots to really dangerous proportions. Coupled with the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the frustration of the different sections of the middle class, workers and poor have reached a critical point, just as they did in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Greece.

This is the background to the rapid growth of the PTI and PAT. They are filling a vacuum created by the failure of the current government and the reformist politics of the mainstream left, who have sided with the established system on all the important questions of the class struggle.

Government summoning its forces

The government and all the main bourgeois parties have opposed the protest movement by presenting it as an attack on democracy. They published a statement supported by 11 of the 12 parties in parliament, condemning the “undemocratic character” of the protest movement. The leaders of the PTI and PAT have been summoned by the Supreme Court, which may outlaw their blockade of “Constitution Avenue”, the main road of the parliamentary and government district in Islamabad.

Unsurprisingly, the US embassy had already given its backing to Nawaz Sharif and his “democracy”. The government is, therefore, assured of support from its main imperialist masters.

After the entry of the march into the “red zone” around parliament, there were rumours that the military might take advantage of a situation that was getting out of hand for the government. A number of negotiations had been held, with the High Command in Rawalpindi demanding a greater say in foreign policy, including relations with India and in the “war on terror”, which it is waging on behalf of the US not only in Afghanistan, but also in Waziristan in Pakistan. No doubt Nawaz Sharif had to give some concessions to the military, which, on the other hand, then assured the prime minister of its loyalty.

Whilst a violent clash between the protestors and the authorities could always be used by the military to present itself as a force “above” the contending parties, it is much more likely that it will now back the current government after the latest concessions and because of the backing of the US. In addition, Imran Khan, certainly a rather “adventurist” bourgeois politician, is seen as an unreliable figure not only by the other bourgeois parties, but also by the military leaders.

The accusation by the government, the judiciary and the lawyers' organisations that are linked to the main bourgeois parties, the PML-N and the Pakistan People's Party, PPP, that Khan and Qadri are agents of the military, should be seen as attempts to win the bourgeois public and the media to their side. The current government itself has a shameful record of “ordinary” rigging of elections, widespread corruption and repression of national minorities and war, not to mention its repeated attacks on working class attempts to defend jobs and living standards.

Therefore, it is rather bizarre that it now presents itself as “defending democracy” against a mass protest and sit-in of up to 200,000 people, amongst them many women and children. As if blocking “Constitution Avenue” was the greatest threat to “democracy” in Pakistan. True to form, the government's way of “defending democracy” is to order not only even more police into Islamabad, but also the 111 Brigade of the Pakistani army in order to “assist” the police and, if need be, clear the streets of the protestors.

Whilst it is no surprise that the government wants to present itself as “defending” democracy, it is shameful that most of the left have also sided with it, against the protestors, in the name of democracy. They may argue that the whole movement is a conspiracy by the army, but what really concerns them is that, within the established system, they can find a role for themselves.

In reality, the fact that the “oppositional” bourgeois and petit-bourgeois populist forces have been able to take the initiative in mobilising the widespread anger of the middle strata and poor in society is a condemnation of the left. Their backing for the government has allowed Khan and Qadri to present themselves as the “popular” alternative to the current government, the military and even their imperialist masters. That is why the masses, particularly in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, placed such hopes in the current movement. Sadly, as we can see from the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it has essentially continued the previous government's policies and accepted loans, with strings, from the IMF and World Bank, this hope itself is illusory and false.

By contrast, the left has failed to mobilise the working class independently against the current government. It has not been in the forefront of the struggles for democratic rights, the fight against inflation, the cutting of subsidies or the privatisation projects. Neither has it opposed the military operations in Baluchistan and North Waziristan.

The left, including the Awami Workers' Party, urgently needs to make a radical political turn towards mobilisation and taking up all the key issues with vigour. It has to clearly oppose all attacks by the government and police on the protestors and their right to demonstrate in Islamabad, just as it would have to mobilise all its forces against any attempt by the military to increase their power.

Most importantly, it has to become the force taking up all social, economic and political issues and to be in the forefront of the struggle, based on a revolutionary, socialist programme. Only in such a way can it become a rallying point for the working class, all impoverished and oppressed sections of society and even sections of the petit-bourgeoisie. Only in such a way, can it make use of the growing crisis and divisions within the bourgeois camp.