Crackdown by a U.S. ally

March 5, 2009

Snehal Shingavi looks at the political crisis unfolding in Pakistan as pro-democracy activists plan for a large march this month.

PAKISTAN HAS been rocked by angry protests since the country's Supreme Court ruled February 25 that opposition political leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif were ineligible to hold elected office because of a past criminal conviction.

The court's justices were installed by former dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf while he was president--and are now beholden to the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, who kept the Supreme Court intact as part of the U.S.-brokered arrangement that brought him to power after Musharraf was driven from office.

Zardari, who is notoriously corrupt himself, then used the Supreme Court ruling as a pretense to make further moves against his opponents. He dismissed the Punjab provincial assembly and replaced its leadership with loyalists, and brought Pakistan's most populous province under "governor's rule" (rule by the central government).

The court's decision and Zardari's maneuvers are the latest in a long list of travesties committed by Musharraf; the justices he hand-picked in an effort keep his grip on power; and Zardari, who became the head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) after the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari

Since 2007, the country has been unable to resolve the problems surrounding Musharraf's decision to fire the Pakistani Supreme Court and stack it with loyal justices. The arrangement that allowed Zardari to succeed Musharraf required a judiciary that was willing to drop pending corruption charges against him.

Zardari's maintenance of Musharraf's sham judiciary has continued to fuel the Lawyer's Movement in Pakistan, which formed to demand the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who has become the symbol for politics that are independent of Pakistan's corrupt factions.

The current political debacle is not, as Zardari argued, the necessary consequence of the court decision, but a specific ploy by the PPP to shore up its own power against growing opposition and its fear that it will be unable to win elections. Zardari joins a long list of civilian leaders in Pakistan who have used constitutional wrangling instead of parliamentary power-sharing or mass movements in order to hang on to power.

Zardari's current strategy, of using extraordinary presidential powers written into the Pakistani constitution under Musharraf, has made him the enemy of many civil-society organizations. He has turned the openly corrupt Nawaz Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), into something of a democratic hero because he makes a principled defense of an independent judiciary.

As the Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported, "Ostensibly, Zardari and Sharif, who head the country's two biggest political parties, disagree over the judiciary, but at the heart of their feud is a struggle for power."

Last year, the two were cozying up, trying to form a coalition government. But as rifts opened up between the PPP and the PML-N, both parties have been jockeying for power, with neither group able to secure a solid national majority.

Traditionally, the Pakistani ruling class has resolved internal debates with either an extension of the powers of the civilian government (as in the case of Benazir's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) or with the imposition of military rule (as in the case of Pervez Musharraf). This time, however, the ailing Pakistani economy has no cushion to provide the populist projects that usually accompany limits to democratic freedoms in Pakistan.

AS IT is, the country is poised for a showdown in the coming month centering on Punjab.

Early estimates indicate that a planned Long March set for March 12 will be quite large. Already, the Lawyers Movement is reporting that enthusiasm for the protest is growing, and groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), one of Pakistan's more conservative religious parties, have expressed enthusiasm.

At the same time, Zardari has implemented a series of policies designed to chill the opposition.

First, he announced the creation of "mobile courts," which are literally courts on wheels, designed to offer verdicts at the scene of the crime and allow for immediate detention.

The government claims that these mobile courts are being set up to help administer justice in remote areas without access to courts. Still, there is substantial speculation that these have been set up in order to quickly process nonviolent protesters who will participate in the planned civil disobedience outside the Parliament House. Rumors have also been circulating in Lahore and Karachi that the leadership of the Lawyers Movement will be rounded up in advance of the Long March.

Zardari has also announced that the capital will be sealed for the duration of the Long March in order to prevent protesters from reaching their destination. The move will undoubtedly place the march in the direct line of fire of the Islamabad police forces. And heightened security all over Pakistan after the attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team will likely give the government myriad excuses to crack down on dissent of any kind.

The moves toward repression have only increased the opposition to the Zardari government, with protests breaking out all over the country. But the constitutional manipulations are only the latest in a series of moves that have angered ordinary Pakistanis.

Not only is the Zardari government coming under increasing fire for its collaboration with American missile attacks from remote-controlled aircraft in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), but it had to admit, embarrassingly, that the spectacular carnage in Mumbai last November was in fact planned by Lashkar-e-Taiba from Pakistan.

The pressures to fall even farther into line behind the American strategy for Afghanistan are only increasing as Pakistan has had to repeatedly approach the U.S. for economic assistance to bolster its battered economy. Zardari, though, is no victim of American machinations. He has supported U.S. foreign policy and pursued the long tradition of PPP politics that have attempted to bring Pakistan closer and closer to the U.S.

A NEW debate is also opening up in the American ruling class over how to deal with Pakistan.

President Barack Obama has already committed himself to stepping up the war in Afghanistan, and that has pushed the U.S. farther and farther into Pakistani territory. The 17,000 U.S. troops headed into Afghanistan will be concentrating their efforts on the border region next to Pakistan. The military escalation, coupled with an injection of $4.5 billion of aid projects, Obama hopes, will allow the U.S. to make quick work of the difficulties it has faced in Afghanistan.

Already, though, the Obama plan faces challenges from Zardari's government. The recent truce between Islamabad and pro-Taliban forces in the Swat Valley in the NWFP has also raised the ire of the American government, as it sees the move as potentially strengthening the hand of the Taliban in border areas with Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the Atlantic Council, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank, recently released a report calling for a shift in American strategies.

The report argues that the "tacit understanding" between the Pakistani government and the U.S. to allow missile attacks inside Pakistani territory makes the situation "more tenuous and delicate" for Islamabad. The report, which calls for a major reorganization of U.S. policy toward Pakistan, was released at a press conference by Sen. John Kerry and former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel.

"Continuing Predator attacks are testing the ability of the Pakistani government to build a consensus for follow-up actions," the report warns. "Indeed, both the PML-N and the religious parties in the government coalition have begun to withdraw their support" for Islamabad's counter-terrorism policy. "So has the ANP government [Awami National Party--electoral partners of the PPP in the last election] in the NWFP."

Currently, though, there are no signs of a shift in Obama's policy, and it is likely that the missile attacks will continue. This will have the double effect of drawing the residents of the NWFP and Federally Administered Tribal Areas closer to the Taliban and other Islamist organizations, and of destabilizing the PPP government.

The PPP's troubles are deepened by its inability to win political allies for its economic policies, which have actually made matters much worse for ordinary Pakistanis. Not only have energy subsidies been slashed, but money for domestic development projects has been ruthlessly cut as well. As The Economist reported:

After two years of political turmoil and spreading violence, the economy is moribund. The textiles industry, which accounts for about half of Pakistan's industrial jobs and foreign-exchange earnings, has been pole-axed by gas and electricity shortages. A third of the textile factories in Punjab are said to have been shut down. In November, faced with the prospect of defaulting on its external debt, Pakistan had to return to the International Monetary Fund for a $7.6 billion bailout.

Many are speculating that international interests will compel Zardari and Sharif to reach an agreement before the power struggle escalates any further. Such a move might calm tempers in the short term, but the underlying problems in Pakistan will not be solved by power-sharing compromises. The structural problems of the Pakistani economy and the ambitions of the American empire will continue to force the Pakistani ruling class into increasingly dangerous decisions.

A successful Long March that has the ability to inspire millions in Pakistan for an alternative to the corrupt parties will go a long way towards rebuilding an independent left in Pakistan.

Further Reading

From the archives