It is less than sixteen months since the much disputed election victory of the Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif. Yet Pakistan has already been plunged into another political crisis. Two separate organisations with radically different agendas, Imran Khan?s Movement for Justice ? the PTI, and the Pakistan Peoples Movement, the PAT, have marched on the capital, Islamabad, vowing not to leave until the government resigns. Here we carry an interview on the significance of this crisis with Waquas Butt, a leading member of Pakistan?s Revolutionary Struggle, which is affiliated to our Socialist Network. Waqas has just spent several days among the protestors in the capital discussing their demands with them.
Editor: What is the background to this current crisis?
Waqas: Sharif came to power last year on the slogans of reviving the economy and ending the energy crisis. But on both these issues things have only grown worse for the working people. For example, electricity is now being cut for three hours in every four. And the price of electricity has gone up from 8 rupees per unit to 18 rupees. The Chief Minister of Punjab, who also happens to be the Prime Minister?s brother, had started out claiming that they would end the electric problem in six months. But now he is reduced to calling on people to pray for rain to cool the heat!
The lack of electricity supply in Pakistan has been made much worse since the privatisation of this sector in 2002 and this is deeply damaging the whole of the Pakistani economy and disrupting the lives of its citizens. The effective generation and distribution of electricity requires long-term planning and investment, neither of which private enterprise is good at, being geared solely to short-term gain. Bringing the electricity sector in Pakistan back into public ownership would be a big step forward.
Certainly, there is tremendous energy potential in Pakistan with large reserves of coal in Sind Province plus a massive potential for tapping into the country?s renewable energy. For example, in the mountainous region in the North West KPK province there are already plans for the introduction of small hydro power plants to utilise the many fast-flowing rivers there. There is considerable scope for the installation of wind turbines in the coastal areas of Baluchistan and Sind. Pakistan is also a land rich in sunshine and solar energy could supply many current and future power needs.
On the wider economy, the ruling party is the representatives of the neo-liberal capitalist ideology. They are determined to make the poorer sections of society pay for any economic revival. Thus we have seen potatoes rise from 20 to 80 rupees per kilo. Petrol prices are soaring. The legal minimum of 12,000 rupees a month (150 Euros) for an unskilled worker is being widely flouted. Unemployment is now around 25% with two million coming onto the job market every year and no jobs in sight. In the last budget the Finance Minister admitted that over 50% of the population is now below the poverty line. Even the middle layers are being badly affected.
As a result support for the government has fallen at a dramatic speed which is why some of the opposition parties are hoping to bring the government down so early in its term of office.
Editor: What is the agenda of the political parties who have marched on the capital?
Waqas: Imran Khan has joined forces with the Islamic movement and is effectively presenting himself as the clean face of the Taliban. He has accused the current ruling party of winning through the rigging of last year?s ballot, considerable evidence for which has emerged since the election. He is getting a lot of support among the lower middle class. A potentially more interesting group is the PAT, a non-governmental organisation which is led by the liberal cleric Tahirul Qadri. Its followers are mainly from the poorer working population. PAT is also accusing the government of vote-rigging but they go much further in condemning the whole political system in Pakistan as corrupt and biased in favour of the rich and against the poor people of the country. The only way forward they argue is for a revolution and the introduction of much more grassroots democracy. But the ?revolution? they are calling for is very vague and their slogans are ambiguous. They have no concrete programme. In this way, the PAT is a tool of the army and is popular among many of the elite in Pakistan but its main support lies in Punjab where the majority of Pakistanis live. At the core of the NGO lies a liberal religious cult whose members are willing to die for their leader and their demands. Already the organisation has been involved in determined protests in which sixteen of their supporters were recently killed by police. This was soon followed by the death of another eight of their supporters. But despite these losses the party is clearly determined to step up its challenge to the government.
Editor: What are your perspectives for the outcome of this current struggle?
Waqas: The crisis has now intensified. Imran Khan has called on the population to stop paying utility bills and taxes until the Prime Minister stands down. The protestors have moved into the red zone where the parliament and government buildings are. They have blockaded the buildings. This obviously cannot continue for too long without a decisive outcome. The PTI supporters belong to the lower middle class and are relatively soft and could be ignored. The PAT supporters however come from the street and are willing to die for their cause so it is going to be much more difficult to deal with them. If the government tries to crack down on them then all hell could break loose.
The key factor in the outcome of the protests is the position taken by the army. Normally an army is expected to defend the ruling party but in Pakistan the army has a long history of intervening in Pakistani politics. In this particular case, there have been clear signs that the army commanders are alienated from the government and vice versa. For example, the Prime Minster and his ministers have been openly campaigning against the army?s intelligence agency, the ISI. Also, they have made it clear that they do not support the military operations against the Taliban in Waziristan in the north of the country. In this situation it is possible that army could use the protests in the capital as an excuse to remove the government, along the same lines as they have recently done in Thailand.
Editor: Are you predicting another coup?
Waqas: A direct coup is always possible but is probably the least likely outcome given the fact that it is not so long ago that Musharraf?s regime crumbled in disgrace. More possible is that the army will take advantage of its upcoming three month emergency rule of Islamabad agreed with the government before this latest political crisis in order to defend it against revenge attacks arising from ongoing operations against the Taliban. If the protests continue and grow in strength the army might use its emergency powers to force the government to dissolve the assembly and go for a new election. This is the option favoured by Imran Khan?s PTI which would hope to substantially increase its representation in parliament under such circumstances.
Another option being talked of is that the army will replace the current government with a national technocratic administration for three years before a fresh election is held under radically altered rules. This option is favoured by the PAT which is not so interested in the parliamentary process having boycotted past elections.
I have spent the last four days in Islamabad and interviewed a lot of protestors in the ranks of the 80,000 strong PAT contingent. The overwhelming number of the PAT supporters are poor. They tell me that they want to get rid of cruelty, injustice and poverty. To end the rule of the few. They want a revolution but are unclear about what this would mean and how it could be achieved. When questioned about this their fall back tends to be: ?Our leader knows these things?. Many protestors want revenge for the deaths of their supporters in the Punjab, and they argue quite logically that those responsible ? the Prime Minister and his brother the Chief Minister of Punjab ? must immediately be suspended from office if justice is to be served on them.
Interestingly, although the leader of PAT, Tahirul Qadri, is a liberal religious figure who has built a religious movement which forms the core of PAT, his followers are not particularly religious. Of the 70-80,000 protestors only 100-200 responded to the evening call to prayer while the rest continued listening to the speeches or sang protest songs. It is clear that the focus of the PAT is on the problems of the ordinary people. Indeed, one of the positive aspects of this current political crisis is that attention has at last shifted away from the challenge of the religious extremists and their campaign of assassinations and attacks.
Unfortunately, the majority of the organised Left in Pakistan is not recognising the positive aspects of this movement and satisfies itself with just abusing the leadership of the organisations involved and dismissing the significance of the protests. We in Revolutionary Struggle take a different view and are closely following the moods and actions of the masses from a sympathetic perspective.
Editor: What is the reaction of the local media?
Waqas: The television and print media in Pakistan is currently divided into three parts. The biggest media group GEO supports the government and argues that these protests are against parliamentary democracy. Smaller media organisations such as the ARY group are supporting the protestors and/or the army and are in favour of the dissolution of the government. Some media outlets stand in the middle and are trying to give a balanced view.
Editor: What is the situation regarding the mass privatisation programme of the current government?
Waqas: The government?s sweeping programme for selling off the government companies and services has stalled for the moment. This has come about partly because of the trade union campaign against privatisation that was initiated by our comrades from the Revolutionary Struggle. Our campaign has greatly encouraged key figures within the Pakistan?s Peoples Party to strongly oppose the privatisation programme. It has also encouraged many of the state industry managers who would lose their privileges and power if these industries and services were sold off, to place bureaucratic delays and obstacles in the path of the privatisation process. In some cases these managers have been unofficially working with the unions to hinder the process. Another important reason is that some of the sectors planned for privatisation are in a bad shape and not yet attractive to potential buyers. All of these factors have turned the privatisation programme into a matter of major controversy in the media.
Editor: What has been the role of the Pakistan Peoples Party since the election?
Waqas:Overall the leadership of the PPP is trying to play the role of a loyal ?friendly? opposition. Despite the rapid fall in support for the government and the mass street protests, the PPP is not joining them. The PPP leadership opposes the protests with the argument that it took so long to get the army out of politics and to achieve the restoration of parliamentary democracy that nothing should be done to jeopardise the parliamentary system. Thus the opposition parties like PPP are fearful that the protests will lead to a technocratic government or martial law. They also fear a re-election which could see the parties leading the protests do well and the PPP become sidelined.
The PPP leader, Zardari, has even said that he would wait for five years and only then start to campaign against the government. There are great chances for the PPP to capitalize on the ruling party?s unpopularity but they seem to prefer to play the parliamentary game of ?musical chairs? and patiently wait their turn.
Editor: What are the perspectives of Revolutionary Struggle?
Waqas: Whatever the outcome of the current political crisis, the struggles taking place are undoubtedly raising the consciousness of sections of the masses. It is likely that they will have to go through the experience of an alternative government before they can see through the inadequacy of the reforms being demanded by the opposition. It will be in that situation that opportunities will open up for a clearer understanding of the need for the democratic socialist transformation of Pakistan ? a real revolution rather than the fake revolutions being now demanded on the streets of Islamabad.
If the outcome of the crisis is a martial law government or a technocratic government neither would be able to solve the energy, unemployment and poverty problems in Pakistan which are only likely to intensify in the coming years. This situation would then pose many opportunities for the spread of democratic socialist ideas and a rise in working class struggle. In this context, the political and organisational challenges facing the PPP will increase which will provide more spaces for our work through the party to organise the masses.
Editor: What are your positions in the movement?
Waqas: I am a lawyer based in Mardan in North Western Pakistan. I specialise in civil law and often defend workers and unions in legal cases. I am currently President of the regional Peoples Youth Organisation (PYO is the youth section of the PPP) and am on the national leadership of Revolutionary Struggle. I am planning to develop an organisation to defend farmers in land disputes between the landlords and tenants/peasants, something that is sorely lacking at the moment.
Editor: Thank you very much for you cooperation and we wish you and all the comrades well in your political struggles.
Waqas: You are very welcome.