Pakistan in Turmoil

Once again, the nation of Pakistan has found itself in what many commentators are calling a national crisis.  This time around, the civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari was forced to keep one of his party’s election promises—reinstating Chief Justice Chaudhury (who had been summarily dismissed by General Musharraf in 2007—a move which precipitated Muharraf’s downfall).  This reinstatement was the result of a popular movement spearheaded by lawyers and other elements of the religious and secular opposition.  One element of the secular opposition is the Labour Party of Pakistan (LPP), a democratic socialist organization launched in 1997 from various elements of the Pakistani Left.  In 2007, after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, I communicated with Farooq Tariq, the secretary general of the LPP.  After the recent events, I got back in touch with him. What follows is an exchange conducted the past couple of days (March 16-17, 2009) between myself and Mr. Tariq.

Hello Tariq.  To begin, can you give the readers an idea of what is transpiring in Pakistan? In your description, can you identify the parties and prominent individuals involved?

What is transpiring in Pakistan is mass power. A real sense of victory after the restoration of the chief justice Iftikhar Choudry is one of the main features of this movement. It will be difficult for any government in the future here in Pakistan not to implement what was promised. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was forced to accept a demand only and only with the emergence of mass power in the streets.

It is a victory of the people against the traditional power brokers of Pakistan. It is a victory of hope against cynicism. There were many saying that Iftikhar Choudry would never be reinstated because President Zardari will never change his mind. The sheer expression of mass uprising frightened all the major actors of the movement. They rushed to accept the initial demand of restoration even before the long march reached Islamabad. Had it (the long march) not been called off by the lawyers’ leaders after the acceptance of the first demand, the list of demands would (probably) have been expanded from the political to the economic area.  This movement showed that the people of Pakistan can make a difference. Pakistan has changed and changed for ever.

The Long March of the lawyer’s movement proved that a consistent struggle and militant actions can be fruitful. The tactics and strategy of the lawyers movement were a combination of the united mass action of political parties and civil society organizations and a successful propaganda campaign through the electronic and print media. Had the lawyers movement gone alone, they could not have won the battle.  The main political parties that were in the forefront of this struggle are Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, Tehreek Insaaf, Jamaat Islami, Pukhtoonkhawa Mili Awami Party, Awami Tehreek, National Party, Labour Party Pakistan, Khaksar Tehreek, Baluchistan National Party, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, National Workers Party, Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party and a majority of Pakistan social organizations. Of these Jamaat Islami is a religious party and rest are Left, liberal and progressive parties.

Anyhow, the most consistent political parties that were part of the lawyers movement since it started on 9 March 2007 are Tehreek Insaf of Imran Khan, an emerging party of the middle classes, Jamaat Islami, a religious fundamentalist party and the Labour Party of Pakistan (LPP), a socialist party.  The rest of the parties were of and are part of the movement.  The most prominent figures of the lawyers movement were Ali Ahmad Kurd, president Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), and three SCBA presidents including Aitezaz Ahsan, Hamid Khan and Munir A Malik. They were all arrested but stood firm. From the political parties, Imran Khan, a former Pakistan cricket team captain has emerged as the most popular personality of the movement. His party was not very well known or active by movement standards , but because of the participation of Tehreek Insaaf (Justice Party) in this movement, it has become a household name in Pakistan.

From the Left parties, Labour Party Pakistan has gained to some extent. Also, the LPP is now better nationally known with a very militant position.  The party that got the most advantage from this movement is the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN). It won the February election arguing for the reinstatement of the top judges. It used clever tactics after the elections. It left the Alliance at the Center with PPP on this question. The PMLN leaders and the Sharif brothers made very radical speeches before and during the long march. The party (PMLN) was ready to take risks and loose the provincial government in Punjab on the issue. If there was an election today, this right wing bourgeoisie party would have a national land slide victory.

Does your party (the Labour Party of Pakistan) support any of the figures involved? If so why? If not, why?

LPP supported the leaders of the lawyer’s movement all the time but with a critical attitude. Our literature produced during the movement helped to expand the nature of the movement. Our first poster read, “on the footsteps of the lawyers, till the end of dictatorship”. We linked the restoration of the judges with the end of military dictatorship. We saw the potential of this movement to expand on a national level from the very beginning. We supported them because the nature of the movement was very progressive. It was not a religious movement of any kind although the religious parties tried to take it over.  However, the demand of an independent judiciary could never be termed as an Islamic demand.

We supported them (the movement) because it was producing an anti-militarist political tendency among a significant section of the middle class and was producing a new layer of young political activists who were not religious fundamentalist. We helped the movement and the movement helped the Left ideas to grow in both the political and organizational arenas. Those who were associated with the lawyers movement got a national identity and were heard everywhere.

Do the events occurring in Pakistan open an avenue for the Left? Will the PPP cease to exist as a party or will it return closer to its leftist roots?

It is a very complex political situation. The ideas of religious fundamentalism have a natural ally here. That ally is the presence of the NATO forces in Afghanistan. The objective situation is very favorable for the right wing ideas to grow. The nature of the Pakistan state is another help to them. (After all) It is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and not a people’s republic. Yet, the ideas of the Left are growing as well. Our help from the international scene comes from the development of Left governments in Latin America and social movements in the advanced capitalist countries.

Internally, we are growing because of our tactics of helping and developing the mass movements of the workers, peasant women and the lawyers. The association with the movement is a key to our recent growth. Over 5000 have joined the Labour Party during our “peoples contact movement (drive)” in December and January 2009. Incidentally, our best growth was in North West Frontier Province, where over 2000 have joined during this time.

But our most stable basis is still the trade unions and peasant organizations. We have not left our work in this class base to join the lawyer’s movement. It was possible for our comrades in Faisalabad, the third largest city of Pakistan, to lead over 100,000 against the shortages of electricity in January 2009. Twenty of them were arrested on 14 March 2009 and we had given a call for a general strike on 16 March, the day lawyers won. I was told by the comrade that the call has been supported by the traders as well. It would have been a total success if the lawyer’s movement would have continued on the day (March 16). The success of the lawyer’s movement has opened a new avenue for the growth of Left ideas. For the first time, we are witnessing the educated youth joining our party. Earlier, we were a handful of comrades within the party who had university degrees.

The PPP is the main loser of this whole episode. It has politically moved much towards the right since it came in power a year ago. It has tried to implement the neo-liberal agenda that was initiated by General Musharraf. It is seen as a party allowing the American imperialists to attack Pakistan directly without any state resistance. It failed to implement the promises of reinstatement of the judges despite written agreements three times. The leader Asif Zardari is probably the most hated politician among the mainstream leaders. He is seen as a liar, deceiver, swindler, trickster, charlatan, quack and cheater. A day after the reinstatement of the top judges, he made a statement that he wanted to reinstate the judges. This was after he was seen as the main hurdle in the path of reinstatement.

The PPP is distributing sweets all over Pakistan after the reinstatement claiming that they have fulfilled the promise of Benazir Bhutto. Yet for over eight months, their entire leadership was arguing that Benazir Bhutto never promised to reinstate them. They were saying that Iftikhar Choudry is a politicized judge. Their argument was that he should take a new oath like some other judges have taken. They were making a point that Iftikhar Choudry is just one person. They were using all sorts of  arguments against the judges in all the television and print media debates. Yet only a day later (after the reinstatement), they wanted the Pakistani people to believe that it was the PPP who had reinstated and fulfilled a promise of Benazir Bhutto. They believe the memory of the people is very short. They believe that we should forget our jails, arrests, tortures, ungrounded life, the barricades in the road to stop the long march and whatever else. The PPP leaders have become real hypocrites.

The party is not finished but is losing its support rapidly. It will remain as a major party unless another party replaces them with a revolutionary programme. The PMLN can never replace the PPP. It can win an election for the time being but it can never have the permanent support of the people because the nature of PMLN is almost the same as PPP. Both are right wing bourgeoisie parties with populist appeal at some times.

There is no possibility of the PPP taking a Left route. The reason is very simple, PPP leadership from top to bottom is committed to power and to (certain) people. They have proved again and again that they will serve the interests of the ruling class and imperialism and are not for the (majority of) the people. They have even abandoned the gesture of leftist ideas. It will remain in the political scene as a party of the capitalists and feudalists. All the time it is losing support. Benazir Bhutto’s death gave it a breathing space but that is lost already.

What about the conflicts in Swat and other parts of the Northwest Frontier  Province (NWFP)? How are they affected by what occurs in Islamabad?

In Swat, the government signed a surrender pact with the religious fundamentalists. Under their pressure, so-called Sharia courts have been established and the normal judicial structure has ceased to exist at present. It is a victory of the extreme religious fundamentalists in the area. They now control at least major parts of NWFP including the Malakanad division. There is a peace in Swat at present at the cost of abandoning all sort of normal democratic institutions and ideas. The public girls schools are now open with a totally different character. They have become the public Madrassa. The girls have to read what the student girls are reading in (mosque-run) Madrassa.

The Islamabad answer to all this is to accept the Predator drone attacks by the Americans. On one side, they are signing surrender agreements with religious forces and on the other side (they are) helping American imperialism to fashion their air attacks. This entire situation is paving the way for the growth of extreme religious ideas in all parts of the NWFP. The government of the Awami National Party is unable to mobilize the mass support they had enjoyed only one year earlier on the question of peace in the region. The religious fanatics got less than three present votes in the February 2009 general elections as compared to 15 percent in 2002. The Islamabad government seems paralyzed in this situation. They are waiting for miracles to happen. They are still acting like it is “business as usual”. There is no thought out strategy by Islamabad to handle the conflict with religious forces.

From your perspective, what role do you think Washington is playing in the struggle between the forces represented by Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif?

Washington is trying to bring them together and asking them to resolve their conflicts. The American ambassador in Pakistan is very busy between Raiwind, the residence of Nawaz Sharif, and Islamabad. They are asking both sides to come together to fight effectively the “war on terror”. They always frighten both of them as to the consequences of the conflict between them. The best option (as Washington sees it, would be) that the both should form an alliance at (the) center and in other areas. Nawaz Sharif has been saying all the time that he was forced to go for the Long March. It was not his choice. He did not want the masses to come on the roads but the sheer bull-headedness of Zardari forced them to this situation. The feudal ego of Zardari has meant that the Sharif brothers are out of power for the time being. A day after the success of the movement, Nawaz Sharif told his supporters to behave and that he respects Zardari and Gilani of the PPP. His brother Shahbaz Sharif told a television that those who make a mistake in the morning and then come back home in the evening must be forgiven.

The last time I spoke with you (November 2007), I asked the following questions. I am hoping you can respond to them with your country’s history since that time in mind: What, in your opinion, is the cause of the unrest in Pakistan? How much of a role do religious extremists play? How much of a role does the Army play?

There are multiple reasons for the constant unrest in Pakistan. The foremost reason is the inability of the ruling classes in Pakistan to solve all the basic problems faced by the masses. There exists a feudalistic relationship and land is not distributed to peasants. This brings a very feudal culture and atmosphere in Pakistan. Both the main bourgeois parties, PPP and PMLN, do not speak about it anymore. The major parts of the main leadership in both parties are from the feudal class. They use the ownership of land for political purposes and to win the elections. Sixty-one years of independence have brought no real independence for the majority of the people. This is the real crisis of leadership in Pakistan. Both main parties rely on the military generals. Even in this (most recent) crisis over the  days from 12-16 March 2009, the army chief was mediating between the president, prime minister and the Nawaz brothers. The Nawaz brothers (said they) were very thankful to the “positive” role of the army chief.

The failure of reformist parties like the PPP paved the way for the growth of religious extremism. The extremists were and are supported by a major section of the army. It is a very complex relationship between the rich, the army and religious extremists. It changes and adjusts all the time. 9/11 made an indispensable difference to this relationship. The fact is that the support of the ruling class for religious extremism is not open as was the case in the past, but the presence of the American forces in the region has given a real momentum for the growth of the religious fundamentalists.

The military is out of power in public but not in real terms. No military general has faced any truth commission after their unconstitutional rule. General Musharraf was given a guard of honor when he resigned on 17 August 2008. He still lives in an army house and enjoys all the privileges. The military power in the budget allocated to “defense”, is a defense of the ruling class in real terms. Over 30 percent of national income goes to defense budget. The whole society is militarized.  (There are)  a lot of weapons everywhere and it is not decreasing.

Mr. Sharif was quoted after the crackdown by Pakistani police failed to stop the protests earlier this week as saying what happened was the “beginning of a revolution.” Is this true? If so, would it be a revolution for the majority of the Pakistani people or merely the elites who seem to take turns ruling the country?

Mr. Sharif has used the words of revolution, rebellion and upsurge several times after his government dissolved in Punjab and governor rule was imposed. He told a gathering that he is flying a flag of revolution and to side with him. His brother Shahbaz Sharif has recited Jalib and Faiz Ahmad Fiaz several times in public– both poets are known for their revolutionary poems all over Pakistan. The word revolution to Nawaz Sharif  means nothing and only comes out of his mouth when he is in the  opposition. The revolution means for them, their power and that is it. The Nawaz brothers economic priorities are absolutely the same as those of the PPP. They both are for the neo-liberal agenda and both are happy to work with American imperialism.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at:



Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: