Pakistan’s general election, delayed for six weeks following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, was finally held on 18 February. Close to 40 percent of the eligible 80 million electors turned out to vote for the 272 seats in the National Assembly (see endnote). Another 70 seats are reserved – 60 for women and 10 for religious minorities – and allocated to various political parties in proportion to their strength in the assembly.
PPP and the PML(N) gains
Belying the widespread apprehension that these elections would be rigged by the Musharraf military dictatorship, they proved to be relatively free and fair. In view of the mood of the masses and the resentment widely felt against military rule, the army felt unable or unwilling to fix the result in favour of its protégés.
As a result, while the People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP), led by Asif Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), led by another former prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, emerged victorious, Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League, PML(Q), was thoroughly trounced.
The PPP won 89 seats, and the PML(N) 66, while the PML(Q) won only 42. Taking into account the reserve seats which each of these parties will attract, their strength in the new assembly will be as follows: PPP 114, PML(N) 85 and PML(Q) 55.
To gauge properly the gains made by the PPP and PML(N) at the expense of the PML(Q), one has only to glance at the strength of these parties in the outgoing assembly. While the PPP had 81 members in that body, the PML(N) had a mere 19. The King’s Party, as the PML(Q) is derisively referred to in Pakistan, had 126 – a number in excess of the combined strength of the PPP and PML(N).
The PPP could have done better still in this latest poll if it had not been perceived by the Pakistani electorate to have been a little bit too close to the Musharraf regime. Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, adopted an unambiguously bold approach against the military regime, in consequence of which his party did rather well, especially in the populous, and important, province of Punjab.
As for the provincial assemblies, the PPP has won an absolute majority in Sindh and will form the government there. In Punjab, PML(N), emerging as the biggest party, but without an absolute majority, is certain to form the government in coalition with the PPP.
In the elections to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), allegedly a hotbed of muslim fundamentalism, the secular and democratic Awami National Party (ANP) has emerged the largest party, with 31 seats, and hopes to form the government in the province with the support of the PPP and PML(N). The ANP also won 10 seats in the National Assembly, where it had no representation following the rigged election of 2002. The PML(Q), on the other hand, won only six seats in the NWFP, while the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – a loose combination of six fundamentalist groups – with eight seats in the new provincial assembly, is powerless either to form the provincial government or sabotage the formation of a government by the ANP.
In Balochistan alone, where the nationalist parties boycotted the poll, are the PML(Q) and the MMA in a position to form the government.
Demolition of the ‘Three As’ myth
By casting their votes as they did in this election, the Pakistani masses have demolished several myths about Pakistani society, the chief among them being the ‘Three As’: Allah, Army and America, allegedly the all-powerful regulators of social and political life, whose strangulating grip can never be loosened.
The recent election has clearly revealed the resentment felt by the Pakistani masses at US meddling in their internal affairs. All the heavy-handed methods employed by the US to influence the outcome of the election proved futile, by and large.
Equally, the elections brought out the stark truth that the Pakistani army is hated, reviled and despised by the people, as much for its misrule, corruption and greed as for being an instrument in US imperialism’s so-called war on terror. Popular anti-army slogans and ring-tones, such as ‘Go, Musharraf, go’, were all-pervasive during the election campaign.
Not surprisingly, then, 26 ministers, including the PML(Q) chairman and erstwhile prime minister, Chaudhary Shajat Hussain, the pretentious railway minister, Sheikh Rashid, and Aijaz ul-Haque, the religious affairs minister and son of the late military dictator Zia ul-Haque, were defeated. Many bigwigs from the class of landlords, which is most closely connected with the army, as well as many fundamentalist outfits, also lost their seats. These included two members of the Jatoi family, the biggest landlords of Pakistan.
As for the fundamentalist spokesmen of the Almighty, they too have bitten the dust. The MMA (dubbed by the Pakistani masses as the Mullah Military Alliance because of its support for the military dictatorship), which had 63 seats in the previous assembly, can now count on a derisory five, while suffering a stunning defeat in the Frontier Province, which it previously ruled. The chief loser among this coterie has been Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the Jamiat ul-Ulema Islami (JUI), the largest constituent of the now nearly defunct MMA.
A shock to Musharraf
The election result in Pakistan has come as a shock to the Musharraf regime and US imperialism alike, for it is threatening to tear apart the carefully-laid plans of the US, which hoped that a newly-elected assembly would serve as a legitimising civilian façade for the continuing Musharraf military regime – all manipulated by Uncle Sam.
That scenario would appear to have bitten the dust. As it is, the PPP and the PML(N), with the help of the ANP, are set to form a coalition government, something which was considered inconceivable until very recently. The two major parties – the PPP and the PML(N) – have agreed to reinstate the members of the judiciary arbitrarily sacked by Musharraf, to demand a UN probe into the murder of Benazir Bhutto, and to amend the constitutional provisions which allow the president to dissolve the National Assembly or dismiss an elected government.
The reinstatement of the sacked judges is fraught with the most unpredictable and explosive consequences, for it opens the judicial route for ridding Pakistan of the Musharraf military regime. A reinstated and confident judiciary might feel emboldened enough to resume its hearings of constitutional challenges to the legitimacy of Musharraf’s re-election as president last year.
For obvious reasons, the PPP is not overly eager to restore Iftikhar Chaudhry, former Chief Justice, for he might also insist on hearing challenges to the National Reconciliation Ordinance – a decree waiving corruption charges that Benazir Bhutto extracted from Musharraf as part of the Washington-brokered power-sharing deal that preceded her return to Pakistan.
However, the military is in bad odour, and the PPP is under pressure from the PML(N) and, more importantly, from the masses of people in Pakistan, especially from its most vocal and articulate section – the lawyers and political activists – to reinstate Chaudhry. If this happens, as is only too likely, it obviates the need for impeaching Musharraf – a course which, apart from being overtly provocative, faces two obstacles: first, the PPP, PML(N) and their allies may not be able to muster the required two-thirds majority in the National Assembly; second, the Senate, whose approval is also required constitutionally, is still controlled by PML(Q) and other allies of Musharraf.
Thus the judicial route offers the best hope of relieving Musharraf of the Presidency, a fate he could only avoid by lining up the army on his side. In the present circumstances, he does not stand much chance of getting army support, for the army has now been clearly revealed to the Pakistani masses as a thoroughly corrupt instrument of US imperialism’s war on terror, and a conduit for the spread of fundamentalism, instead of being perceived, as was the case when at first it ousted the former, notoriously corrupt, civilian government, as an agency for delivering discipline, efficiency and honest government.
US attempts at manipulation
Washington is fearful of a coalition between the PPP and the PML(N), for such a coalition may not look favourably upon the US’s war on terror. Under such a coalition, Nawaz Sharif is set to have a big say on foreign and domestic policy, especially on the question of the fate of Musharraf, on whom the US has staked all its chips.
The US government has made it abundantly clear that it is opposed to the dismissal of Musharraf and has threatened to review its aid policy in regard to Pakistan if its advice on keeping Musharraf is not heeded. In addition, according to Business Recorder, the Karachi-based leading financial daily of Pakistan, the Saudi government, obviously on cue from Washington, has hinted that it may well halt supplies of oil to Pakistan on a deferred payment basis – an arrangement that has worked well hitherto.
Since the election, the US has intensified its efforts to prevent the formation of a PPP-PNL(N) coalition. Failing this, it is bringing pressure to bear on these two parties to give up some of their intended anti-Musharraf plans. For instance, the US is pressing on these coalition partners to give up the demand for the reinstatement of the former Chief Justice, for it rightly fears that Chaudhry’s reinstatement may very well end up in the removal of Musharraf.
To press the US’s case, the Lahore-based US Consul General spent two hours on 20 February with Aitzaz Ahsan, a prominent leader of the PPP and of the lawyers’ movement, which has been in the forefront of the struggle for an independent judiciary and for the reinstatement of the judges sacked by Musharraf in an attempt to prolong his stay in power.
According to a report in News International of 21 February, sources in the PPP confirmed that “the Americans had brought tremendous pressure on the PPP Co-chairperson [Zardari] to make a coalition with the likes of PML(Q) and MQM but not the PML(N)m”.
A number of US congressmen, including Senators John Kerry, Joseph Biden and Chick Hagel, met PPP leaders in an attempt to influence and manipulate the outcome of the process of government formation in Pakistan.
The US ambassador in Pakistan, Anne W Patterson, issued veiled threats that the removal of Musharraf might carry a heavy cost for Pakistan. At the same time, on 25 February, Patterson held a confidential meeting with Nawaz Sharif, ostensibly to refute allegations of US interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan, but actually in an attempt to cause a rift between the PPP and the PML(N).
In view of the above, it is not surprising that US stock in Pakistan has hit rock bottom, with only 16 percent finding that country’s role acceptable, according to a recent opinion poll, with a sizeable section demanding that Patterson be told to quit Pakistan.
These developments have begun to cause serious concern among sections of the US ruling class. Thus it was that The New York Times, among other representatives of US monopoly capital, has advised the Bush administration to cut its losses by withdrawing support from Musharraf, being fearful that the present blatant meddling by the Bush clique may cause a backlash.
Formidable problems facing new government
If the mass pressure continues, as is likely, to stiffen the backs of the leaders of the PPP and the PML(N), there is a real possibility, given the domestic and international situation, of the Pakistani people toppling the Musharraf regime. That in turn will open the field wide for the development of a truly mass democratic movement.
Meanwhile, the incoming coalition government faces formidable problems, which it must tackle. Pakistani society is deeply polarised along class and national lines, the situation being made ever-more complicated by US interference. With a population of 160 million, and a GDP of $12.8bn, 72 percent of the people in Pakistan live on less than $2 a day, while 17 percent eke out a miserable existence on less than $1 a day, as rising food prices take their daily toll. A mere 2.3 percent of GDP is spent on education, with the result that only 54 percent of the population above the age of 15 can read or write.
As for Pakistan’s economy, it is overly reliant on the services sector, real estate and the stock market, while productive sectors of the economy – agriculture and industry – continue to lag. Meanwhile, the country’s infrastructure is in a frightful state. If in 1959, a mere 24 individuals, firms and companies controlled nearly all the country’s industrial assets, not much has changed since then. Presently, 2 percent of Pakistanis own 98 percent of everything in the country.
The service sector accounts for 54 percent of Pakistan’s economy, while the property sector has expanded 23-fold since 2001, thanks to speculation in land. Pakistan is burdened with a staggering total debt of $40bn, of which the external debts alone stood at $33bn in 2007.
Previous governments, military and civilian, have followed the IMF-World Bank prescriptions of privatisation, liberalisation, deregulation, removal of subsidies and price controls, which have enriched the local elite and foreign monopoly organisations while driving the masses ever deeper into the abyss of poverty, destitution and misery – all in the name of efficiency and competitiveness. The incoming government, if it wants to stay in office, must turn away from this path of increasing pauperisation of the masses and bring in measures for alleviating their condition.
Further, a near full-blown insurgency is under way in the Pakistani tribal areas bordering on Afghanistan. Suicide bombings have spread in the big cities, including Islamabad and Lahore. There is the constant US pressure to enlist Pakistan in the US’s criminal, genocidal and predatory war in Afghanistan – a war which is forever spilling into Pakistan. The new government must free itself from the suffocating embrace of US imperialism.
These proposed measures are, however, only palliatives. The real cure lies through the development of the working-class movement, in accomplishing a thorough-going people’s democratic revolution as a necessary stage in the struggle for socialism. The significance of the current struggle against Musharrraf’s military regime lies in the fact that it is helping to clear the ground for the development of such a movement.
Down with the Musharraf military dictatorship!
Down with US imperialism!
Victory to the Pakistani people!
Actually, only 268 constituencies went to the polls on 18 February as the elections from the remaining four had to be postponed following the death or murder of the candidates. Given the very high level of violence surrounding this election, a 40 percent turnout can be considered as very good, and indicative of people’s determination to vote despite intimidation.