The brutal face of the Pakistani state has appeared once again, tearing away the ugly mask of the so-called “democratic” process. Martial Law has been imposed on the country in the guise of an “emergency”. All basic rights of the people have been suspended and the constitution – which was already designed to serve the interests of the ruling classes – has been put on hold.
Hundreds of political activists and lawyers are being arrested throughout the country. Lawyers leading the movement against the Musharraf regime had already been arrested and put behind bars for one month. The judges of the Supreme Court who refused to obey the orders are also in detention and have been sacked from their jobs.
A severe crackdown has been imposed on the electronic media with all the private TV and radio news channels being shut down. Strict restrictions have been put on political gatherings and any assembly of people has been termed illegal.
This “extra-constitutional” step taken by the chief of the armed forces of Pakistan once again reveals the weakness of the state and the deep contradictions that have developed among various institutions within it. The “pillars of the state” have been constantly at war with each other over the last few months and this situation has deepened further the crisis within fragile state structures.
The army is teetering on the edge, judicial activism is creating panic, parliament has outlived its utility, law enforcement agencies are harassed by terrorist activities, the intelligence agencies are fighting among themselves and the Frankenstein’s monster of fundamentalism, created by the state itself sometime ago, is now killing its own men. This is the real situation within the Pakistani state, over which the General wants to rule with a stick.
The class contradictions are very ripe but these have not exploded to the surface yet in a sufficiently generalised manner. This is giving a temporary breathing space to the ruling class to clamp down on the working class. But once the floodgates of the mass struggle open up no one will be able to hold them back.
Benazir Bhutto quickly returned to Karachi from Dubai and has condemned the imposition of the emergency. “It is a dangerous development for the country,” she said in a press conference after her return from Dubai on November 3. However, instead of confronting the General she has opted for a compromising path that should lead to “free and fair” elections. She said that, “we are looking for a peaceful transition to democracy”. Also no clear line was given about joining the lawyers’ protests on Monday where again hundreds of people were arrested and severely baton charged.
The US and British governments have also condemned this “unconstitutional” act of the General and have expressed doubts about his commitment to the restoration of “democracy”. The imperialists feel the threat of the mass movement in Pakistan and fear that any irrational act could trigger this movement and could bring the masses on to the streets. This would do serious harm to their imperialist plans for the region and create difficulties in implementing their cruel agenda.
For the imperialists it is not an abstract question of “democracy” versus “dictatorship”. When it has suited them they have had no problem in warmly supporting vicious dictatorships, such as that of Zia. At this stage dictatorship no longer serves their purposes. They want to diffuse the movement by cutting a deal between Musharraf and Benazir, which, however, is getting more difficult to patch together with the unfolding of new events.
In a press statement a day before the imposing of the emergency, Condoleeza Rice warned Musharraf not to go for such a measure. However, Musharraf, who had promised to shed his uniform on November 14, felt he had no other option to counter the mounting pressures of the labour movement. In his public address on TV and radio after imposing the emergency, he pleaded with the imperialist powers to “understand the situation” and cooperate with him in this critical moment.
The real threat to the state is indeed the labour movement, which is gaining momentum with every passing day. The day before the imposition of the emergency in Pakistan, the engineers of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) were on strike. They were demanding an increase in wages along with an improvement in their working conditions. Due to this strike 92 flights, local and international, were cancelled. All the airports in the country were totally deserted on Friday and the weak state was brought down on to its knees. They managed to get the strike called off the next day after promises and pleading by the government to meet the demands of the PIA engineers. This powerful strike was enough to push the government to take drastic steps to curb the basic rights of the people and aggressively follow its policies of downsizing and privatisation.
In the proclamation of the emergency declared by General Musharraf the judiciary is blamed for obstructing the economic agenda set by the World Bank and IMF. He makes reference to: “constant interference in executive functions… economic policy, price controls, the downsizing of corporations…”
The strike by the PIA engineers gives us an indication of what is going on in other departments and industries. The policy of privatisation, downsizing and restructuring is creating havoc for the working class, rendering thousands of workers jobless. The introduction of the contract system and heavy cuts in the salaries of workers is compelling them to come out and wage a struggle against this tyranny and oppression.
Workers are on the move in every department. In WAPDA (Water & Power Development Authority), which is responsible for the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in the whole country, workers have started their struggle. On September 11 there was a referendum within the WAPDA workforce in which the traditional union of the workers, Hydro, won by a lead of more than 37,000 votes. The unions supported by both the government and fundamentalists suffered a crushing defeat.
During the campaign, the mass meetings of the Hydro union were emotionally charged and excitement was at its peak. In many mass meetings workers vowed to switch off the electricity if their demands were not met.
After the huge victory of the workers and the threat of a strike, the government decided to aggressively follow its policy of restructuring and privatisation in WAPDA. These steps were enough to force the trade union leaders to abandon their compromising attitude and move towards confrontation. Due to the increasing pressure from below a national call was issued to protest against the vicious government policies on October 30. In these protests hundreds of workers from WAPDA participated in every city and town, and in some areas workers from other departments also joined in. In these protests the mood was electric and the workers once again vowed to switch off the lights if their demands are not met.
PTCL, the national telecom company, was privatised in 2005. The workers there had waged a relentless struggle against this act, but due to the compromises of their leadership they could not succeed. To complete the privatisation process, the new owner wanted to sack nearly 33,000 workers in the first phase to extract the required rate of profit from it. The government was delaying this approval due to its own weakness. However, on October 19, after the massive reception of Benazir Bhutto, a meeting was called in which Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz approved the sacking of 29,000 workers from PTCL to complete the privatisation process. This also has invited the wrath of the workers once again and they are in a rebellious mood.
The workers of the railways have had a long history of struggle since the days of the British Raj. They also played an important role in the revolutionary movement of 1968-69. Due to this they are subjected to severe oppression by the current regime. Draconian labour laws are rigorously imposed on them and union activity is strictly banned. Serving Generals and army officers are appointed at various posts to curb the workers.
But despite all this, the resentment of the workers is growing. The signal staff workers carried out a determined struggle and they were able to create pressure to get their demands accepted. Similarly, engine drivers and other workers are also continuously pressing for their demands. The movement is ripening and workers of various departments are coming closer to calling for a complete shutdown to push hard for their demands.
KESC was privatised under this Musharraf regime but it has failed to deliver electricity to the people of Karachi who experienced a brutal summer this year. To increase their profits the KESC owners are sacking nearly 10,000 employees. This again has forced the workers to follow the path of resistance.
The Central Board of Revenue was restructured in this year’s Budget and was renamed the Federal Board of Revenue and it was announced that 7,500 employees will be sacked. Since then the workers have been continuously in struggle against this downsizing and are protesting in all the major cities. A recent protest was held in Multan on October 30.
The workers of the banking sector and financial institutions are the most unfortunate of them all. The rapid privatisation of the banks that went hand in hand with downsizing has relatively weakened the trade unions. Moreover, the draconian 27-B law implemented under the regime of Nawaz Sharif has deprived the bank workers of their political rights.
The new owners are exploiting the workers to their maximum and are extracting huge profits out of the labour of hundreds of deprived poor employees. The National Bank made a profit of 30 billion rupees in 2006 which is the highest in the history of Pakistan. Habib Bank made a profit of 19 billion rupees. This bank was sold for 21 billion rupees three years ago, on top of which the government again paid a further 7 billion rupees for various reasons. United Bank UBL had a profit of 13 billion rupees, MCB 18 billion rupees and ABL 7 billion rupees.
The main reason for these huge profits is the economic carnage imposed on the bank workers which include lowering of wages, cancelling of allowances and other facilities and increases in working hours. This situation has increased resentment and the workers are preparing for a big struggle.
Similarly the teachers in the Punjab Education Department and Technical Education Authority have been protesting in all the major cities over the last two months. The Punjab chapter of the APCA (All Pakistan Clerks Association) have also threatened to go on strike if their pay scales are not revised. They also have protested in big numbers in various cities. The same mood exists among the workers of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA) and all other departments.
The workers at Unilever, as we have reported in previous articles, are already involved in a movement and are moving forward with their heads held high. (See Unilever Pakistan: Workers protest against threats and repression by management and Unilever Rahim Yar Khan: The attacks on workers intensify… The struggle strengthens).
The workers of the textile industry are the most affected by the current economic crisis. This industry is responsible for 60 percent of the country’s exports but due to the policies of the WTO and other international financial institutions, this industry is in crisis. The present crisis has made thousands jobless while others are working in inhuman conditions.
The peasants and small farmers are also being ruthlessly exploited by the sugar mill and flour mill owners and middle-men. The sugar mill owners owe millions of rupees to the farmers which is leading to a deterioration of their living conditions.
In the context of the above-outlined scenario, the step taken by the PIA engineers boosted the confidence and determination of the workers in other departments. If the drastic step of imposing the emergency had not been taken and attention had not been diverted towards the internal quarrelling within the state institutions, the PIA dispute could have sparked a generalised revolt in all the other government departments and in the private sector, where disputes are in an initial phase, and this could have rapidly led to generalised mass movement.
At the root of the present political and social turmoil lies the economic crisis. The Trade Deficit has gone over the $14 billion mark, while the current account deficit has gone over the $7 billion mark. These are the highest deficits in the history of Pakistan. Moreover, the increasing prices of oil and other items internationally is intensifying the crisis. Countries like Pakistan, which have to import oil, are even more vulnerable to changes in prices internationally.
The international economic crisis is putting pressure on the rupee, which is rapidly being devalued. This adds to the already skyrocketing prices of important food items. Already the people of Pakistan have suffered a devastating holy month of Ramadan. During this month the food-price inflation reached its historic peak and the prices of essential food items rose to levels never seen before.
The price of bread rose from 3 rupees to 4, and in some areas it was being sold for 5 rupees. This was due to the “blessing” of the flour mill and wheat hoarders’ mafia, which is led by the Punjab chief minister and other members of the cabinet. The price of LPG and gas used in homes has also been raised. On Sunday a 14 percent rise in the base price of LPG was announced.
All this has made the life of the common man and woman miserable and dejected. According to the latest news a new wave of price hikes will hit the markets this week, which will add to the problems of the working class. According to news in The Dawn, “a fresh tsunami of price bout of essential kitchen [food] items is brewing up in the market which may hit consumers any time next week.”
With the price of oil approaching $100 per barrel on the international markets and the deepening world economic crisis there seems no respite for the economic managers of this decaying capitalist system in Pakistan. The intensity of the economic crisis will increase in the coming few weeks, and this will be reflected in the political and social crisis. The present unstable regime has now used almost all its options to avert a mass uprising but the threat of a generalised movement from below is still giving them sleepless nights.
With the implementation of the emergency, Musharraf and his courtiers will ruthlessly try to crush the working class and will attack them in a manner never seen before. However, with weak state structures and the escalating internal crisis, they will not be able to cling on to power for long and their fate is hanging on a thread. The more they will try to hang on to power the more it will slip out of their hands.
The role of Benazir Bhutto will be key in the coming weeks. With a compromising tone towards Musharraf and a pro-imperialist agenda she is trying her best to derail the movement. Her right-wing shift has contributed in a big way to set back the movement. But in these miserable conditions it is not easy to pacify the masses.
The masses are in a defiant mood and they are yearning for change. Now it is very hard to cut a deal with Musharraf. Every new event sabotages their deal and they have to renew it again and again. It will be difficult now to carry on with this situation. The threat of a mass movement will force the establishment to hold general elections soon and place Benazir in power.
The Marxists are already gaining strength both through the vindication of their perspectives and the current political crisis. They had predicted beforehand that the internal crisis could lead to such a situation. In his article Pakistan – a state at war with itself Lal Khan wrote that:
“The state and society are riddled with all sorts of peculiar contradictions. Reactionary forces, albeit superficially, seem to dominate in certain spheres of society. A more vicious and reactionary dictatorial regime is not ruled out, but even if it should come to power it would be very short lived and crisis ridden. It would not last long. The underlying social resentment can explode in a proletarian upheaval as it did in 1968-69. But this time it would be on a much higher plane and with a greater intensity.
The Pakistani Marxists are working within the labour movement to bring together workers from different departments and sectors under one banner and platform and are distributing revolutionary literature in big numbers. The role of the Marxists in the PPP is also growing and they are not only resisting the brutal Musharraf regime and severely condemning the imposition of the emergency, but are also putting forward an alternative programme to the masses. They have led many movements against privatisation and downsizing over the last few years. If there is a mass uprising in the country, the Marxists will welcome it with open arms and will eventually lead it towards a socialist victory.
- The 18th Brumaire of Pervez Musharraf by Alan Woods (November 4, 2007)
- Pakistan: The oppressed awaken from their slumber – sabotage won’t stop them by Lal Khan (October 22, 2007)
- Three Million Receive Benazir Bhutto – the legacy of 1968-69 continues by Adam Pal (October 19, 2007)
- Whither Pakistan? by Lal Khan (September 13, 2007)
- Pakistan – a state at war with itself by Lal Khan (May 15, 2007)