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Pakistan in crisis after Benazir Bhutto’s death

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The assassination of Benazir Bhutto at the end of last year has further destabilised Pakistan. Haroon Khalid from International Socialists (Pakistan) spoke to Socialist Worker about the situation in the country today
Issue 2083

What effect will Benazir Bhutto’s death have on president Pervez Musharraf’s chances of remaining in power?

Bhutto’s assassination has greatly weakened the Musharraf regime, which is increasingly forced to rely on the military to defend it.

Pakistan was already in a deep crisis before the assassination, with the army involved in civil wars in two of the country’s four provinces.

There are long-running battles between the military and various ethnic and tribal groups in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in Balochistan. In many cases the military and state have been driven out of areas within these provinces.

The US has been pressurising Musharraf to crack down – particularly in NWFP, where the local Pushtun population is sympathetic to the Taliban fighting the West in Afghanistan.

Bhutto’s death haas heightened these tensions. The military has now moved into a third province – Sindh, which includes the port city of Karachi – to crack down on anti-government riots.

Last week Musharraf said the army will remain deployed in Sindh until well after the scheduled elections have passed and no protests will be allowed. A government that is forced to outlaw protests is a very weak one that has little backing in the country.

Musharraf postponed Pakistan’s elections until next moonth because his personal ratings have dived and his political allies are in no shape to mount a campaign. The likelihood was that he would be driven from office.

But rather than calming the instability in Pakistan, the forthcoming elections are likely to increase tensions. None of the main parties can solve the crisis created by neoliberalism and the “war on terror”.

The frequency of national political crises is increasing. The ruling class is looking increasingly unstable. The US ruling class, which presented Bhutto as the country’s saviour, now finds itself without a strategy for Pakistan.

The weakness of the ruling class can be a great opportunity for the movement demanding genuine democracy.

What is the state of the democracy movement in Pakistan today?

The movement culminated last year with the campaign to have the chief justice restored to his job after Musharraf sacked him. It has attracted the support of many lawyers, journalists, civil society activists and students.

They took to the streets in large numbers and were violently attacked by the state.

Disgracefully, the mainstream political parties – including Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – refused to join them, instead preferring to keep their doors open for talks with the government. This left the movement vulnerable to the crackdown.

Virtually all of the lawyers’ movement was arrested. Now it has started to retreat since the lifting of the state of emergency towards the end of last year and the announcement of elections.

The leadership of the lawyers’ organisation split on the question of whether they should continue their campaign and call for the removal of Musharraf, or return to being simply a professional body.

The students, however, are a very interesting new opening for the democracy movement – despite not being huge in number. Most students who have joined the movement come from the elite universities. They have continued their protests on the campuses and on streets.

The working class has played only a very minor role in the democracy movement so far. Despite a limited revival in strikes and struggle in recent years, years of military crackdown, privatisations, job losses and price rises have affected the confidence of workers to fight back.

Many workers gave the lawyers’ movement silent support, hoping that it could make a breakthrough that would create space for the trade unions too. There is little doubt though that if the leaders of the main opposition parties had called people on to the streets, then workers would have had the confidence to act – and the regime would have fallen.

How did ordinary people in the country perceive Benazir Bhutto, and whom do they blame for her assassination?

Enormous expectations were attached to Benazir Bhutto, particularly among workers and the poor who hoped that she would be able to address their dire economic situation.

People were really hoping she would bring some change and that she would stand up for them. This was despite the fact that her two periods as prime minister were characterised by corruption and greed.

On her recent return to Pakistan, Bhutto attempted to hark back to the original era of the PPP in 1967, when her father campaigned on the slogan “clothing, housing and food for everyone”.

Most of her speeches were about the need for decent jobs and an improved standard of living for the majority. Many were taken in by all this talk.

Pakistani and US ruling classes regard political leaders that have the backing of the masses as extremely dangerous. And, despite her record, Bhutto had a great deal of support among the masses.

Sensing that Musharraf was becoming less viable as leader, the US moved to co‑opt Benazir in the hope that she could maintain Pakistan’s allegiance to the “war on terror”. They promised to force Musharraf into a power-sharing arrangement with the PPP.

As it became clear that this arrangement was untenable, Bhutto was murdered. Now many Pakistanis see the hand of Musharraf, not that of the Islamists, behind her killing.

Western commentators often say Musharraf is a last barrier which prevents “Islamic fundamentalists” from taking over the state. What is the actual relationship between the Islamists and the state?

The government is deliberately cultivating this image, both at home and abroad. There are some terrorist incidents, and they are often in response to Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas – like recent air strikes on village that killed more than 50 people.

The state quickly classifies them as “suicide bombings”. In very few cases is any evidence presented as to who is responsible for the attack and what their motivation was.

There are many areas where the state has become so unpopular that local officials cannot even perform basic functions, like opening their offices and schools.

In these areas there are frequent attacks, but in no way are “extremists” poised to take over the central state – that is a complete exaggeration.

The mainstream Islamist political parties are all right wing but are divided between those that support the Musharraf regime and those that are against it.

Those who are against him often cite their anger with the government’s backing for the “war on terror”.

But Islamist parties have been in government in NWFP during the period of the military assault, so they are finding themselves increasingly unpopular.


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