A dictator gone but not his policies

By Farooq Tariq

People across Pakistan celebrated the departure of president and dictator Pervez Musharraf on 18 August 2008. As he announced his resignation in an unscheduled nationally televised one-hour speech, private television channels showed instant responses of jubilation in all four provinces. All welcomed the decision. The retired general resigned as president because he was facing impeachment charges by the Pakistan Peoples Party-led governmental alliance.

Following the governmental alliance’s impeachment announcement, no political party defended Musharraf. He was completely isolated. Even the Mutihida Qaumi Party, the party associated with Musharraf, was unwilling to defend him publicly. In fact all four provincial assemblies passed resolutions asking Musharraf to take a fresh vote of confidence on his presidency. Sindh and Baluchistan provinces voted unanimously against him; in Punjab the vote was over 90% opposed while in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) over 98% voted no.

Such was the revulsion against Musharraf among the masses that many of those who were Musharraf’s own hand-picked politicians decided to abstain. The provincial resolutions revealed the dictator’s extremely weak social base. Yet he had been supported by U.S. imperialism for nearly nine years.

There were at least four occasions during the last year alone when ex-general Musharraf could have lost power.

  • Musharraf must thank the PPP leadership for providing him with nearly eight additional months in power following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007. If the PPP leadership had demanded his immediate resignation, Musharraf would have been forced out. For five days after the assassination, Pakistan was under siege by the masses. Unfortunately the PPP leadership decided to take part in the general elections and therefore allow Musharraf to continue in office.
  • Earlier, after the restoration of the chief justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan on 20 July 2007, the top judges were indecisive about Musharraf’s fate, allowing him to contest the election of president while still in uniform. As a result, a parliament elected for a five-year term “elected” a president for a total of ten years. Thus he was in a position to impose dictatorial powers on 3 November 2007, suspending those top judges before the Supreme Court issued its final decision on his case.
  • The outcome of the general elections on 18 February 2008 was totally against General Musharraf. Instead of asking for his resignation following the elections, however, the PPP opted to work with him. This gave Musharraf yet another chance.
  • The PPP leadership promised to restore the top judges within a month of coming to power, but did not. Such a restoration would have given the judges a chance to rule on whether Musharraf’s election should stand. Hence, a fourth opportunity was lost.

After implementing highly unpopular economic policies, the PPP leadership lost popularity. Had they not taken a decision to remove Musharraf, he could have removed the coalition government. So the PPP took this decision in order to gain time, and for now the decision has paid off: While Musharraf had the dictatorial powers to remove the parliament at any time, he had lost his social base and could not make his move. The fact is that he was more unpopular than the leadership of PPP.

The departure of General Musharraf is the first good news Pakistan has had in a very long time. It also means a defeat for the military generals.

The Role of the Mass Movement

There have been many important struggles against the military rule during the last nine years. The peasant struggle for land rights at Okara Military Farms during 2001-2005 set a combative mood among society’s most exploited strata. The 10-day national strike against privatization by the telecommunication workers in June, 2005 was another manifestation of workers consciousness against the military dictatorship. Two local events also contributed to the overall mood of opposition: the successful revolt of the Sindh masses against the building of the controversial Kala Bagh Dam and the three-day general strike by the Sindh and Baluchistan provinces against the killing of Nawab Akbar Bhugti.

But above all it was the militant lawyers’ movement following the removal of the Chief Justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan on 9 March, 2007 that was mainly responsible for the dictatorship’s departure. The 80,000 strong lawyers’ movement showed tremendous energy and consistency over a year and a half struggle.

Musharraf lost power as the direct result of the mass revulsion against him, particularly during the last half year. In announcing their decision to impeach Musharraf the PPP-led coalition government has earned tremendous respect. However, the farewell guard of honor granted to the dictator reveals what might have been agreed to under the table: It seems that the dictator may have been offered safe passage and a luxurious life after his resignation.

The tradition of safe passage for military rulers after their departure from power needs to end. A very popular demand has been: arrest Musharraf so that he can face charges for murder and other crimes.

“Military out of politics” must be the main slogan for future. For 32 years out of the 62 years of independence Pakistan has been under direct military rule. Yet no military general has been tried for the crime of disregarding the constitution. Hopefully the strong social movement in Pakistan will not be silenced or satisfied only with Musharraf’s departure.

What’s Ahead?

After General Musharraf’s departure, a new wave of class struggle will explode. The PPP government has no excuse for failing to solve price hikes. The continued implementation of a neoliberal agenda will be challenged by all sections of the working class. But the PPP-led coalition has the same economic plan that Musharraf pushed. They want to privatize the remaining public sector institutions. They want to remain partners with the American imperialism in their so-called “war on terror.” They want to do things that Musharraf could not do openly.

The capitalist/feudal-led coalition government of the PPP and PMLN will fail miserably to solve the basic problems of the masses. [Editor’s note: In fact the coalition collapsed shortly after this article was written, with the departure of Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN from its governing partnership with the PPP. See further note below.] Following Musharraf’s departure, the coalition honeymoon will not last very long. Mian Nawaz Sharif’s economic policies are no different from those of the PPP. Anyhow, the PMLN’s strong support for the judges and demand that the dictator be held accountable has earned it more respect for than the PPP currently has.

If the PPP’s action has taken back some of the lost ground its prestige may not last. True, the restoration of judges, if done as promised, will earn the PPP more respect. But all the measures against the dictatorship have been welcomed by the masses in hope that it will help to end their miserable lives. Now expectations are much higher than the past and the PPP will be tested on the economic field, and its program cannot meet the needs of the masses.

A new era of class struggle will be a challenge for the forces of the Left and the social movements. Even the religious fundamentalists are a force, wrongly seen by many as anti-imperialists. They want to enhance their political base but have no solution to the economic problems facing the masses. This means that Left forces have to fight against both pro-imperialist forces and against those who are wrongly perceived as anti-imperialists. It is a difficult objective condition for the forces of the Left.

A dictator is gone but not his policies. That is a real challenge that Labour Party Pakistan and other Left forces are facing at present.

[NOTE: Within days Pakistan’s ruling coalition fell apart. Although Nawaz Shari for the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), and Asif Ali Zardari for the PPP, signed an iron-clad agreement on August 7 to reinstate all the dismissed judges, Zardari (the widower of Benazir Bhutto) was unwilling to reinstate former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury. Chaudhury could have overturned the amnesty from corruption charges Musharraf granted PPP leaders last year.

[Talks are underway to unify Sharif’s PML-N with the PML-Q, which split from Sharif’s party in 1999 to support Musharraf. While a formal merger is not a legal option, they could align against the PPP as it puts Zardari forward as its presidential candidate. A new president must be elected within 30 days by the national Parliament and the four provincial assemblies. [Over the last four months, inflation has risen 80%. While fertilizer, oil, gas and food companies are making profits, the working class is responding with new militancy. During the month of August workers in flour mills across the country struck to protest government cutbacks in food, fuel and utility subsidies. Shortly afterward small investors rioted at the Karachi Stock Exchange, frustrated by a 36% drop in the market since April. A few days’ later 5,000 textile workers in four plants protested the sacking of coworkers. [There are both power shortages and a shortage of wheat. These along with rising inflation and price hikes have seen the PPP’s popularity decline from more than 50% to 32%.—editor]