Elections in Pakistan last February put an end to the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharaf – but not, it seems, to its policies. The new coalition government of radical Islamists and bourgeois nationalists maintains close relations with the military, is continuing a neo-liberal agenda and still supports the alliance with US imperialism.
Farooq Tariq of the Labour Party Pakistan told a recent Socialist Resistance Forum that this turbulent period had nonetheless opened up possibilities for the left in Pakistan.
The socialist Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), with 3000 members and 100 elected councillors across the country, has led high-profile campaigns on land rights, privatisation, women’s rights, child labour and other issues afecting workers and the poor. It boycotted the elections of 18 February because it opposes neo-liberalism and any alliance with pro-military parties.
Farooq Tariq was asked how much had really changed in Pakistan since the elections. “This is a new government with old faces,”he replied. “Musharaf had to withdraw martial law and take off his military uniform but he is still in a powerful position as president.”
The three capitalist parties in the coalition government are the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the murdered Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz and the Awami National Party.
“The present so-called democratic government is discrediting itself, happy to bring in the most corrupt people to the top jobs,” Farooq Tariq explained. These people collaborate with the generals who continue to dominate all aspects of economic life. The military still owns 12% of all agricultural land and it’s other interests include huge holdings in dairy farms, fertilizer factories, banks, contruction and insurance.
The government is even trying to reinstate the judges who supported the military in last year’s movement to bring down Musharaf.
Neo-liberalism is alive and well with privatisation the cornerstone of the government’s programme. The price of flour has doubled, petrol has increased by 20% and rail fares have shot up by 15%. The PPP has talked of raising the minimum wage but has taken no steps to propose a new law on this to parliament. The majority of workers, meanwhile, are not even receiving the original minimum.
Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007 brought the state to a complete standstill for five days. Such was the chaos and public outrage, said Farooq Tariq, that Bhutto’s party could have successfully demanded Musharaf’s resignation there and then. “But before her death Benazir had agreed to work with Musharaf.”
There has been no let-up in the repression of oppositionists (Farooq Tariq himself has been imprisoned five times in the last year) and thousands of those who disappeared during the miltary dictatorship – most of them religious fundamentalists – are still missing. Yet because of the massive anti-Musharaf consciousness before the election and the emergence of a young radicalised middle class Farooq Tariq reported ‘all left parties are growing’.
The Labour Party Pakistan initiated the peasant movement that started in the Punjab in 2001 after the military tried to take over 68,000 acres for agribusiness. Against the background of a small and weak trade union movement it is trying to nurture a radical trade union formation in Karachi and Lahore. The party’s strongest support comes from the north west frontier province and from Baluchistan in the south west where the massive exploitation of gas has been threatening people’s land and livelihoods.
The LPP has also recruited over 100 new members from Pakistan’s militant movement of lawyers. The anti-Musharaf movement sprang up last year after Chief Justice Iftikar Muhammad Chaudry defied Musharaf and after many judges and lawyers who protested at the repression were themselves arrested and beaten.
The LPP sees scope for building a small mass party of the left. It is calling for new elections under the auspices of an independent electoral commission and with proportional representation. That would give left parties a chance to be represented in parliament, Farooq Tariq explained.
“Right now”, he argued, “anything can happen. I don’t think Musharaf can survive but other parties may back the military as they have in the past and there is the possibility of the military retaking power… That’s why we have to strengthen the mass movement and build an alternative.”