President Pervez Musharraf’s humiliating defeat in last week’s elections in Pakistan has created a crisis for Gordon Brown and George Bush, both of whom see the country as a frontline in their fight against “Islamic extremism”.
Bush has heavily backed Musharraf since the former general took power in a coup in 1999. In turn, the Pakistani president has sent 120,000 troops to fight “insurgents” along the country’s long border with Afghanistan.
The victorious parties in the election – the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto and the wing of the Pakistan Muslim League that supports Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) – are now being pushed by the US state department to work with Musharraf, despite his crushing election defeat.
The PPP is the biggest single party in the 272-seat national assembly. It is led by Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari. Despite the party’s long record of corruption, the PPP still clings to its claim that it speaks for the poor.
Former prime minister Sharif has also been dogged by corruption scandals. Though his party is more conservative on social policy than the PPP, it fought the election demanding the removal of Musharraf and the reinstatement of judges that he had sacked.
Asked by a reporter if Musharraf could lend any help to the new government, Sharif replied to much laughter, “He is not capable of giving any kind of help anymore.”
Anger at US imperialism formed a crucial backdrop to the elections, with Musharraf’s PML-Q party, admitting that support for the “war on terror” cost it dearly during the election.
Fighting has now spilled over from Afghanistan into regions of Pakistan, including the North West Frontier Province, Waziristan and the Tribal Areas. Many Pakistanis rightly blame this on the country’s military being instructed to do the bidding of the US.
Both the main parties are quick to point out that they favour a continuing battle with “extremism”, but are worried about continuing with the war in the border areas. They know that many of their votes came from those who are sick of the spiral of violence that it has created.
But the parties’ room for manoeuvre will be constrained by relentless pressure from the Bush administration, which is demanding the capture of leading Taliban figures before the US president leaves office at the end of this year.
In addition to the war’s unpopularity, former minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a close aide of Musharraf, also conceded that the Red Mosque operation last year – in which the government ordered the destruction of a mosque that was sheltering “Islamic militants” – hit his party badly.
He added that that the worsening economic situation for the poor had compounded the party’s problems. “It was very difficult for us to ask for votes when the voters were without gas, electricity or had no wheat flour or sugar in their homes,” he said.
According to Riaz Ahmed from the International Socialists of Pakistan, the country’s democracy movement has been revitalised by Musharraf’s humiliation at the polls.
“In the two most populous provinces, Punjab and Sindh, the lawyers’ movement that emerged on the streets in large numbers last summer is back and is demanding the reinstatement of the judges sacked by Musharraf.
“The sacked chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, played a critical role in unmasking the complicity of the secret service in the ‘disappearance’ of Pakistani citizens that the CIA wanted to interrogate and torture.
“He also stated that rounding up innocent citizens and shipping them off for torture was one of the main reasons for an increase in suicide bombing in Pakistan.
“Now people are demanding that the new government returns his job. However some sections of the ruling class are worried that such a concession might lead to a wider confidence to challenge Pakistan’s role in the ‘war on terror’.
“The lawyers’ struggle has again become a focus for all those who have faced miserable conditions under Musharraf’s regime.”
The ruling class in Pakistan remains deeply split on the question of the “war on terror” and future relations with the US.
“One section of the bourgeoisie does not want to disassociate itself from the Islamists that are the target of the US war,” says Riaz.
“But the other actually wants to increase cooperation with the US, because it sees its own interests as tied up with those of global capitalism.”
The parties of the new government have already indicated that they want to find a compromise with the Pashtun tribal leaders who opposed Musharraf and who at times have supported the Taliban and given refuge to fighters returning from Afghanistan.
They have indicated that they are not against the “war on terror” but are against the way it is being conducted in Pakistan. The prospect of even a limited compromise is causing panic in US government circles.
“A new government may be able to reach an accord with the militants, and that would buy the government a certain respite,” said Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre. “But that would give the militants space to provide safe haven to Al Qaida and other extremists engaged in attacks in Afghanistan.”
During the course of the election representatives of the US government met with the leaders of the PPP and the PML-N to press their case for more bombardment of tribal areas and the right of the US to fire missiles at “suspicious convoys”.
While there is now a question mark over what future role Pakistan will play in the “war on terror”, there seems little sign that the neoliberal policies that have dominated the country’s economy are about to change.
There is enormous inequality in Pakistan, and the gap between rich and poor is increasingly visible. Last year the economy grew by more than 7 percent, but still more than half the population is illiterate and poverty means that only a quarter of children get beyond primary school.
Meanwhile in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, one of only two seven-star hotels in the world is nearing completion. Here the Pakistani elite will meet to do business with the global rich, while the poor will be expected to look on in wonder.
“Neoliberalism is the orthodoxy among all the main parties in Pakistan,” says Riaz.
“That means within a matter of weeks the new government will start to come under pressure over questions like a possible devaluation of the Pakistani rupee and the huge rise in fuel costs – both of which will hit the poor and the working class the hardest.
“During the last six months, Musharraf deliberately held fuel prices down in an effort to win the election. The new government is unlikely to continue this policy.”
The millions who voted against Musharraf in the hope that the new government would start to address Pakistan’s growing poverty and inequality are set to be sorely disappointed. But the question of what happens to those who become disillusioned with Pakistan’s democracy is rarely asked.
“One possibility is a resurgence of the right wing Islamist parties, such as the MMA,” says Riaz.
“The Bush regime is crowing about the defeat of the MMA government in North West Frontier Province, but that defeat is primarily a result of the MMA’s failure to oppose the ‘war on terror’.
“The MMA has now split in two, with one wing boycotting the elections and moving towards the Pakistani Taliban, which is fighting a military campaign against the state and the US.
“The other wing contested the elections but was roundly beaten. That does not mean that a new alliance of Islamist parties cannot re-emerge to take advantage of any disillusionment with the new government.”
In Pakistan’s past, the end of military governments has provided an opportunity for the workers’ and students’ movements to revive. There is enormous anger at the rising cost of living, insecurity and inequality, but so far there is little sign of a new strike wave.
“There was some revival of the workers’ movement with the democracy movement in July last year,” says Riaz. “But since then there have been some setbacks.
“Some 32,000 workers in the telecoms industry, which saw a key working class battle against privatisation in 2005, have just accepted large scale redundancies.
“However, the student movement that arose with the fight for democracy does seem to be growing. Students are swelling the numbers on the lawyers’ protests.
“We have beaten a dictatorship backed by the most powerful nation on earth. Our hope must be that this fact will give confidence to the working class to fight back.
“It is the working class that holds the key to defeating the neoliberal offensive of Pakistan’s ruling class.”