Into the abyss as Bhutto mantle passes to son

Jim Moody assesses the crisis in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto's assassination

General (retired) Musharraf asserted earlier in the week that Pakistan’s election next month would be “free, fair, transparent, and peaceful”. However, he rather spoilt the effect by emphasising how protests or any other ‘disruption’ would be answered: “If any individual does anything, I have told the rangers and army, ‘We will shoot anyone who tries to do anything of this sort.’”

A rather unfortunate choice of words in view of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, ‘president for life’ of the Pakistan People’s Party, at the end of December. The culprits are as yet unknown, but many a finger points to elements in the army - perhaps parts of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the Intelligence Bureau (IB - run by the ministry of interior), said to be associated with the Taliban and al-Qa’eda. Bhutto was eliminated from a contest that was likely to have made her prime minister for a third time. Ironically, she had been addressing a rally at Liaquat Bagh, named after Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was himself assassinated in 1953.

Bhutto’s return in October, as a result of a deal brokered by the USA, was intended to lead to power-sharing with Musharraf, allowing the military dictatorship to present a democratic and west-friendly face. In other words the continuation of the ‘war on terror’ and ensuring that nuclear weapons stayed in safe hands.

Having armed the mujahedin via Pakistan (including under Benazir Bhutto’s last term as prime minister), the US did not relish the prospect of a civil war in Pakistan where something like the Taliban emerges with its finger on the nuclear button. But its plans are now in tatters and the west, primarily the USA and Britain, is in a quandary. Were Pakistan’s 50 or more nuclear missiles to fall into the hands of the islamists, then all hell would break loose.

Pakistan is a basket case economically as well as politically. Recent power blackouts have hurt industry and added to the already bitter anti-army feeling. Not only have electricity and gas supplies suffered, but wheat flour prices have rocketed. Staple food is now prohibitively expensive for the poor. Only this week, the national disaster management authority deployed thousands of paramilitary troops at wheat stores to regulate quantities sold and prevent ‘looting’ by hungry  people. To stave off mass starvation, the federal food committee has asked the water and power development authority to ensure 19-hour daily electricity supply to flour mills.

With the west’s darling, Bhutto, dead, the main opposition force in Pakistan is around Nawaz Sharif, who was deposed as elected prime minister by Musharraf back in 1999. Sharif is understandably opposed to any cooperation with Musharraf and his Pakistan Muslim League (Q) (PML-Q) ‘party’. Despite foreign secretary David Miliband, acting as US surrogate, contacting Sharif three times since Bhutto’s assassination, he failed to persuade him to fill her role. Musharraf is adamant too, this week rejecting suggestions of a national government.

The military has a finger in every economic pie, with retired generals and other former top bass occupying top-posts in the country’s leading enterprises. Lacking ‘normal’ bourgeois class relations, in Pakistan the state has become parasitic.

While the end of the military’s domination of Pakistan might well be in sight, there is no disguising the fact that none of the mainstream bourgeois parties can offer a viable solution to the country’s chronic instability. Some suggest that Pakistan is on the verge of either break-up or civil war.

Some short of flash point is clearly imminent. Immediately after Bhutto’s murder, thousands went on the rampage in Sindh, the PPP’s heartland. Pakistani military spokespersons appeared on TV worrying about whether or not the army could not keep control of the situation if the protests continued. Karachi, Sindh’s capital, had roads blockaded, offices and petrol pumps shut, food and fuel shortages, and 50 people killed. However, the PPP leadership drew back, kept its powder dry and left open the possibility of more backstairs deals with the ruling military clique.

There are rumblings in the military, with air force pilots feeling disgruntled at having to bomb and strafe ‘our own people’ in the fight against islamists in the North West Frontier Province, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (capital: Peshawar), and the Federally Administered Northern Areas, all of which border Afghanistan.

There is also fighting in Balochistan that has led to stubbornly held ‘liberated’ no-go areas for the military. On January 14, the army used artillery and helicopter gunships after the Taliban ambushed a paramilitary troop convoy in Mohmand tribal agency, NWFP; seven soldiers were killed. In the last week or so, troops have been moved into Sindh to quell anti-government rioting; Musharraf has said that they will stay until well after next month’s elections.

Continuing the aristocratic feudal attitude in death, Bhutto bequeathed her party to her 19-year-old son, Bilawal, who is a first-year student at Oxford University. Incredibly, while accepting this role, Bilawal expects to continue studying for four years, so his father, Asif ‘Mr 10%’ Zardari, has assumed the mantle of co-president of the PPP. Effectively he is the party’s regent.

Arguably the most popular party in Pakistan, nonetheless in the absence of any membership as such (and thus no possibility of democratic control), the PPP has been passed from father (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) to daughter (Benazir Bhutto) to son/husband - like any other inherited title.

In this Pakistan parallels the dynastic approach of Indian politics, with the Congress Party leadership being passed from father (Jawaharlal Nehru) to daughter (Indira Gandhi) to her son (Rajiv Gandhi) to her son’s widow (Sonia Gandhi), who is caretaking, ie, acting regent, until their son (Rahul Gandhi) can take over.

Whether the PPP can survive with the intensely unpopular Zardari at the helm is a moot point. The numerous minor defections from the party would certainly pale into insignificance if its two main centres of support, in Punjab and Sindh provinces, were to split into separate parties, as could happen. Power brokers in the two provinces do not want Zardari lording it over them. But, on the other hand, they need the PPP to continue with the Bhutto name.

This is important in Pakistan (as it is in India). The masses, especially the small peasants, but including wide swathes of the urban poor, feel helpless without some powerful and seemingly benign protector. Bhutto is a name that for many is synonymous with majesty, the just use of power and tender concern for the little man. Indeed the Bhuttos are widely credited with bringing not only state subsidised seed, fertiliser and basic provisions … but almost the rains and the sun itself.

However, with Bilawal far away in Oxford this could allow the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (N) of Nawaz Sharif to gain ground. And yet there could equally well be widespread sympathy for him because of the assassination of Benazir.

All three main parties are in truth shells. Musharraf’s PML-Q ‘party’ would not have gained a majority in the 2002 general election without massive fraud. Bhutto/Zardari’s PPP and Sharif’s PML-N are vote-gathering milch cows for the direct benefit of their owners; in Zardari’s case his ‘milch’ is already several billion dollars looted from state coffers under his late wife’s premierships.

The deep suspicion in the PPP and PML-N camps is that the elections on February 18 will be anything but free and fair and are likely to be gerrymandered by the ISI and other state agencies. Plainly, the crisis is not going to go away after February 18. Nawaz Sharif ought to know better than most what the ISI can do, of course, since it was thanks to ISI nomination and manoeuvring that he was placed at the head of the PML-N in the first place.

Days before she died, Benazir Bhutto had been worried about ISI and IB interference in the arrangement being cobbled together with Musharraf. She was incautious enough to mention in emails that the major intelligence community fixers, brigadier Riazullah Khan Chib and brigadier general (retired) Ejaz Hussain Shah, were aiming to manipulate the (now aborted) g:January 8 general election results. Her well founded fear was that their involvement would negate the US-brokered agreement and prevent her from becoming prime minister. Subsequently, of course, other means to stop her were used.

Another indication that Pakistan may be descending into ungovernability and break-up was the suicide bombing a week ago in Lahore - the country’s second city, capital of the Punjab, and at the heart of the lawyers’ protests. These demonstrations are now less frequent and student involvement is now sporadic.

Pakistan’s left seems largely frozen. Too often it is a mere adjunct of the PPP, which, like most of today’s affiliates of the Socialist International, is no working class party of any kind. If the PPP fails to come out of the Bhutto assassination intact, its left hangers-on will find themselves totally adrift.

Haroon Khalid of the International Socialists (Pakistan) stated last week that, “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 onto the streets, then workers would have had the confidence to act - and the regime would have fallen” (Socialist Worker January 12). While this may be true, there is certainly a risk of fostering illusions in such parties. For the Labour Party Pakistan - formerly an affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International - Beena Sarwar glows over Benazir Bhutto in a recent article: “At the end of the day she was the best hope for democracy in Pakistan. She represented the aspirations of millions for liberal politics in the country” (www.laborpakistan.org/articles/pakistan/sunroof.php).

Unless the working class movement acts independently in Pakistan, as it must everywhere, then there is no hope that revolutionary organisation can be built and thus no hope for progressive social change. As it stands, the course of the crisis in Pakistan does not suggest any spontaneous outcome that is likely to greatly benefit the working class and its struggle.

A distant but growing danger is that the Indian army might be called on to deal with the Pakistan crisis, perhaps called in by pliant elements within the ruling class. Neutralising Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would certainly be an incentive. But so would extending India’s sphere of influence and perhaps the project of a greater, a restored, India.

Since 1947 India has a record of intervening in its ‘near-abroad’: marching into Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to ‘restore order’ and pulling political and economic strings in Nepal and Bhutan. This would be a ‘unity’ solution for Pakistan’s chronic instability brought about from above … but provided it was not carried out by the BJP or similar forces, could garner a wide degree of popular support in certain parts of Pakistan.

This is where India’s workers should show a lead. Of course there must be solidarity with the brothers and sisters in Pakistan struggling for democracy, but it also means formulating demands for the whole subcontinent. That should include the voluntary union of the two countries as part of regional unity under workers’ hegemony.

Such a demand would not only undermine the growing nationalist (islamist and hindutva respectively) threat in each country and expose the bourgeois demagogues. It would also provide the only basis for the region’s masses to stand up to imperialism.