Musharraf's gamble

State of emergency in Pakistan: the left needs flexible tactics, says Jim Moody

In just a week, matters have gone from bad to worse in Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf has declared an emergency, which is martial law in all but name. The constitution has been suspended. New judges appointed. Only state television is allowed to broadcast and the print media is under tight censorship. No political assemblies of any kind are permitted and up to 3,000 have been rounded up or placed under house arrest. Despite that, near insurrection by islamists fighting for a caliphate in Swat continues amid the danger of a complete breakdown of the state itself.

Musharraf's action was triggered by the likelihood the supreme court would rule against him this week, denying any legitimacy for his taking the presidency while continuing as the head of the armed forces. Hence the sacking of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and eight other supreme court judges who had also refused to sign the Provisional Constitutional Order, the basis of Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency. Although under house arrest, Chaudhry was able to call via his mobile for "the people to rise up and restore the constitution" before the regime cut off all mobile phones in Islamabad. Subsequent demonstrations by students and lawyers led to clashes with the police.

During the summer, militant action by lawyers overturned the Musharraf government's attempt to get rid of troublesome chief justice Chaudhry, displaying unmistakable evidence of a split in Pakistan's state machine. Chaudhry was portrayed by the US administration as a Taliban sympathiser. Though untrue, it is the case that a not insubstantial portion of Pakistan's judiciary is committed to sharia law or at least seeks to incorporate elements of it into the legal system.

US and UK government spokespersons have condemned Musharraf's move: on the face of it, not good news for him. In a gesture acknowledging US-UK official protests, Musharraf's cabinet discussed on November 6 whether elections scheduled for January next year should go ahead as planned - there was a less than clear outcome. But Musharraf still adamantly refuses to say when he will end the emergency.

This is hardly surprising. He is deeply and ever more unpopular. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), was only formed in 2001, two years after he seized power. While it gave his regime some political credibility, it functioned purely at the level of a patronage machine barely separable from the army and bureaucracy. Its social roots are shallow and it is extraordinarily fragile.

Clearly, the US is worried. It has already invested some $10 billion in aid, mostly military equipment. In return it expected Pakistan to continue political and military cooperation in the 'war on terrorism'. Moreover, Pakistan is a nuclear power and a western nightmare scenario is the break-up of Pakistan or the emergence of a Taliban-type regime in Islamabad, commanding nuclear weapons.

In the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a 27,220-square-kilometre corridor of land sandwiched between the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Afghanistan's eastern provinces, tribal leaders' support for the Taliban is a big factor. Pakistan's armed forces have so far proved incapable of quelling islamist revolt in Waziristan (FATA's two most explosive 'agency' areas are North and South Waziristan).

Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the ruling party in the NWFP, is often described as Pakistan's Taliban. It is the second largest opposition party nationally. The MMA opposes democracy, wants to replace secular legislation with its interpretation of sharia law and opposes any US military presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Four years ago, the MMA provincial government gave sharia law precedence over provincial laws in the NWFP; currently, in Pakistan as a whole, only family law is based on aspects of sharia.

The main target of Musharraf's emergency are the islamists and their allies and outriders in the judiciary. But another victim of the emergency and the putting off of the scheduled elections has been Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan People's Party.

The PPP is probably Pakistan's biggest political party. An affiliate of the Socialist International like New Labour, the PPP's power base is the southern province of Sindh, where it has the support of an overwhelming majority of the urban poor; it also has considerable support in the more densely populated province of Punjab. However, for all the leftist rhetoric under Zulfikar Bhutto, the PPP is firmly committed to capitalism and an alliance with the west (ie, the US) under his daughter.

A score or two of Bhutto's supporters have been arrested. But that it the least of Bhutto's problems. She has called for mass protests against the emergency and therefore a Musharraf-Bhutto 'dream ticket' hardly looks on the cards now. Bhutto and the PPP are in that sense caught on the horns of a dilemma. They want to do a deal with Musharraf, but have to line up with those who oppose him and his emergency if they want to retain their mass base.

Musharraf has also used the emergency to hit out against the left and progressive opinion in general. The Labour Party Pakistan reports, at the start of mass arrests on Sunday: "The programme manager of the Labour Education Foundation, Khalid Malik, and president of the Working Women Helpline, Azra Shad, were arrested in Lahore, along with dozens of other activists, as they were attending a meeting at the offices of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan" (www.laborpakistan.org). LPP general secretary Farooq Tariq has gone underground, "to organise resistance against the imposition of the military regime."

The thinking left does not fear a conjunctural or temporary alliance with the lawyers or even islamist elements. That is principled as long as the left upholds working class political independence and does not suspend its criticisms. Certainly there should be no talk of a Respect-type joint party or a coalition government with either the PPP or the lawyers.

It has to be said that the left in Pakistan is small and largely ineffective. Historically, the Communist Party of India organised throughout what is now Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. But come British partition between the then united East and West Pakistan on the one hand and India on the other, most of the CPI's strength was concentrated in India, though there was a substantial presence in former East Bengal (which became East Pakistan in 1947 and then, after the independence war in 1971, Bangladesh).

Very little of the CPI remained in the territory of what is now Pakistan, where shortly after independence former CPI members formed the Communist Party of Pakistan. Repression by successive Pakistani governments drove many of the CPP cadre into exile in India. After suffering Maoist and East Pakistan breakaways, the CPP eventually merged with the Maoist Mazdoor Kissan Party (PMKP). In 1999 a group broke away and reconstituted the CPP, but in 2002 it split, producing two micro-CPPs.

Over the last year, seven leftish groups in Pakistan have formed the Awami Jamhoori Tehreek (AJT), an alliance based on an anti-capitalist, anti-feudal and anti-imperialist programme. It includes the LPP (which was once part of Peter Taaffe's Committee for a Workers' International), the now ex-Maoist PMKP and the National Workers Party, which resulted from a merger of the Workers Party and the Pakistan Socialist Party.

Clearly, though the left remains pitifully weak, it could take great strides forward "¦ if its stays true to the principles of socialism and adopts the necessarily flexible tactics needed to fight the Musharraf emergency and end army rule in Pakistan.