The political situation in Pakistan is moving towards sharp confrontation. The last three weeks have demonstrated that the opposition has gained confidence to challenge the government in the streets. Though the anti-government movement has not yet reached the critical mass to sustain nationwide agitation, the diverse opposition is trying to close ranks and to try and dislodge the Musharaf-led, military-dominated, political order.
By Khalid Bhatti, Socialist Movement Pakistan, Lahore
The political situation has changed drastically in last few weeks. Nobody anticipated that demonstrations and rallies against the blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed printed in Danish and other European newspapers would change the political situation so rapidly. In the beginning the government gave a free hand to demonstrators who mainy were supporters or members of the religious Islamic parties, but when these demonstrations and rallies become violent and were much bigger than expected, the government tried to stop the demonstrations by force.
At first the government encouraged the people to organize demonstrations and rallies, but when it realized that situation might spiral out of control and that these protests were becoming anti-Musharraf, the government started to discourage people participating in rallies and demonstrations.
The sugar crisis
It was clear that the government wanted to use the issue of the blasphemous cartoons to divert attention of the working masses away from the increases in sugar prices. Five weeks ago, sugar prices increased by about 100%. The prices went up to 45 rupees per kg from 27 rupees per kg. There was widespread anger against this unjustified increase. The sugar industry owners earned profits of 7 billion rupees (140 million dollars) in just one month. The majority of these sugar mills are owned by the leaders and ministers of the ruling party and some of the opposition leaders. They are using the shortage of sugar to pile up profits and wealth. The increase in sugar prices has affected every family in Pakistan with poor working class families suffering the most. With increased anger visible on the streets, the government was frightened that the opposition parties would be able to use the anger to mobilise a mass movement. This sentiment was evident when one of the ministers came out with the statement that the government should nationalise the sugar industry.
It is against this background that the government tried to use the issue of the cartoons to divert people?s attention away from price increases. The number of violent demonstrations and rallies played a role in pushing the issue of the increased sugar prices into the background. However, this strategy backfired on the government when they could not control the movement against the blasphemous cartoons and people started attacking and destroying government buildings, foreign owned restaurants and banks in Lahore and Peshawar. In Lahore an angry mob set fire to hundreds of motor cycles and cars. The same thing happened in Peshawar.
In response the government made the unprecedented move not to deploy police on the main roads and streets on the days of demonstrations. Normally heavy contingents of riot police are deployed for even the smallest demonstrations and rallies.
People clearly used the movement against the blasphemous cartoons to show their anger against government policies y. Especially amongst youth there was an outburst of long pent-up anger and frustration.
The Musharraf regime gave a free hand to the Islamic religious parties and groups to mobilise for these demonstrations. In the beginning these demonstrations and rallies were organized by the religious groups and leaders, which are close to the establishment. Even the ruling party, the Muslim League, participated in these demonstrations. But when opposition parties like Benazir Bhutto?s Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif?s (the ex-Prime Minister who was deposed by Musharraf in a coup) PML-N started mobilising, the government imposed a ban on public rallies and protest demonstrations.
The government argued that it had become necessary to protect private property and human lives because of the violence. It started a crack down against the activists and leaders of PPP and PML-N. Many were arrested and put behind bars. In the meantime the religious parties enjoyed full freedom to mobilise their supporters in demonstration which brought hundreds of thousands to the streets. At first these demonstrations were solely directed against the blasphemous cartoons, later they turned against the Musharraf regime itself.
Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) at the forefront
The cartoon issue was a godsend for the MMA. This alliance of the main Islamic religious parties used this opportunity to mobilize their supporters on this very sensitive issue and later turned it against the Musharaf regime. The MMA used these events to improve its fast fading popularity, on the wane because of its support for pro-establishment policies. With their sights set on the parliamentary elections in 2007, the MMA is trying to muster support, challenge the regime politically and improve its own standing.
There is no doubt that MMA and religious Islamic groups enjoy a high level of support at this stage. They have shown again that they are capable of mobilising a sizeable mass of people.
In fact it is the government?s policy of weakening mainstream capitalist political parties like the PPP and PML-N that has helped the MMA to strengthen its political standing. It is ironic that in the past the government and MMA worked together because of their common interests in NWFP and Baluchistan provinces. The MMA aided Musharaf when they passed the 17th amendment to the constitution which gave legal and constitutional legitimacy for Musharaf?s continued rule as a president in uniform.
Despite this cooperation, the MMA continued with varied protests against the government to preserve its status as the main opposition in the frame work of the present system. The MMA has been looking for an issue to serve as a cause for a nationwide mobilisation, now it has found it and is using it to force the government into making concessions.
It is clear that the extreme right wing faction of the state is also supporting the anti-government movement. This faction wants to reverse some policies of the present regime. As we mentioned in earlier articles dealing with the earthquake disaster (see socialistworld.net) the right wing faction is strengthening itself and will strike when it gets the chance.
The Musharaf regime has become a victim of its own policies when it weakened the PPP and PML-N to strengthen its own ruling faction, the Muslim League. This process provided more space for the religious parties to consolidate their political position. As a result a serious challenge by the religious parties would leave no competitors capable of dealing with the enforced political clout of the MMA. The working class would be the only force capable of doing that but it is in need of strong political organisations which at present do not exist.
General Musharraf has responded to the opposition challenge by saying that the civil administration and the military stand by him. He is trying to give the impression that his regime is solid and still has a firm hold on power. He chaired three important meetings last week to demonstrate his hold over state institutions. These included a meeting involving top government officials and the bureaucracy on February 27, a meeting of military corps commanders on February 28, and a meeting of the National Security Council on March 1.
The corps commanders issued a tough warning against using the cartoon issue to pursue ?political or vested interests?. They declared that they would deal with any ?unscrupulous elements? with a firm hand. This strong statement once again proves the military tops are prepared, as before, to intervene in political developments in the country. The government is confident that the support of the civil and military establishment will discourage the opposition from seriously challenging it on the streets.
It is clear however that government is not comfortable with this situation. The crisis has deepened in the regime. The situation in Baluchistan is already out of control where the Pakistani military are attempting to crush an insurgency which is ostensibly fighting for more resources for the province. The on going military operation in North Wazirastan has taken an ugly turn as the military operations have failed to curb the activities of alleged ?terrorists?. The succes of the opposition parties is a big blow to government. Musharraf is also under pressure to decide over his continued rule in 2007. Under these circumstances it will not be easy for him to continue.
It has become clear that different sections of the ruling class are heading towards more open confrontation. Politics in Pakistan is heading for stormy waters for this crisis has further to develop.