Left Writing Pakistan’s Elections

11 03 2008

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At the beginning of the new year, just a few days after the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto, this column had written about why democracy has been structurally weak in Pakistan and the threat of religious fundamentalism gaining power in Pakistan. This column had argued that the dominance of landed property, the weakness of an independent industrial capitalist class and the merging of the armed forces with the landed ruling class had created conditions where it would be near difficult for democracy to strike roots. It had further argued that this array of conditions made the likelihood of a fascist takeover of power a credible threat in the near future.

It was a gloomy prognosis to say the least and it is with undiluted glee that I have welcomed the resounding defeat of the religious fundamentalists and those political parties which were aligned to military rule. These electoral results have reverberated all over the world and have been seen as the beginning of a new chapter in the political history of Pakistan. It truly is a moment for democrats and progressive forces all over the world to savour when the people of Pakistan, braving the bombs, bullets, sundry threats and inducements of the establishment and of the fundamentalists, comprehensively voted both out.

While it is important to celebrate this victory of democracy, it is equally important to make a sober assessment of the achievements as well as the challenges on the road ahead. Important as it is, this electoral defeat of the fundamentalists and of the ruling parties has not weakened the social bases of their power. It has also not, in any way, disturbed the property relations which sustain the Pakistani State.

Before we analyse the significance of these elections, it may be useful to recapitulate the earlier argument. This column had argued that the landed interests formed the dominant part of the ruling class alliance which controlled the Pakistani State from its inception. Over time, the control of these landed interests over the Pakistani State has only strengthened, even while their economic position has objectively weakened given the global trend of falling prices of agricultural goods and rising prices of manufactured goods and services. To compensate this objective weakness, the landed ruling class has been forced to (i) depend on the stick of the military to keep the other social classes in their (subservient) place, (ii) align with Imperialism, and (iii) use the ideology of political Islam to provide it popular legitimacy.

This led to a situation where the military and the landed class fused into one, with the military and military personnel holding 58% of Pakistan’s agricultural land, and the distinction between the State and its dominant social class being erased. It also led to the penetration of the military into all institutions of the State to such an extent that instead of the military being an arm of the State, the Pakistani State often became an arm of the Pakistani military. Moreover, it led to the destruction of left and progressive political movements and the mass legitimisation of theocratic politics.

It will not be too much of an exaggeration to state that after the elimination of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan has continually been ruled by the military. Even during the period of democracy when Benazir and Sharif ruled by turn for more than a decade, the “civilian” government was clearly subservient to and dependant on the military and its leaders. Whether it was foreign policy, economic policy and even local political alignments, the military never let go of its veto in Pakistan.

For about three decades this alliance of landed interests, military, fundamentalism and US imperialism had a happy coexistence.

Today this alliance has fractured. The most obvious is the break between US imperialism and political Islam. It is but an well know fact that the US financed, organised and supplied with arms the religious fundamentalists who were ranged against the left-wing Government of Afghanistan. Even the strategy to finance the Taleban takeover of Afghanistan had the full backing of the Americans. The break between US imperialism and religious fundamentalism is of recent origin. This has put unbearable pressure on the Pakistani ruling class(es) and its military who are now forced to make the impossible choice between their international allies and their local ideological legitimisers. This fracture is well known and has been extensively commented upon.

But there is another break, perhaps incipient, in the ruling class alliance of land-military-mullah-Yankee which has not been noticed much. That is the break between the military and the landed elements. Today, the Pakistan armed forces do not only own huge chunks of land, but also banks, factories, travel agencies and other sectors of the modern economy. Also the growth of an industrial capitalist class which generates its wealth from non-land based economic activities, promises to grow the economy at a faster rate and provide the Pakistani State with greater resources, both economic and political, to draw on. Over-dependence on landed interests are proving to be a strategic drag for the Pakistani armed forces and its State, both in terms of military capability as well as economic/political strength.

Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation” was an attempt, albeit half-hearted, by the Pakistani military to break out of this over-dependence on landed interests and build up a wider class alliance which would include industrialists and professionals. If one looks at his policies, it is clear that he was trying to strengthen “civil society”, encourage the urban middle classes, promote press freedom, rein in fundamentalist ideologies and provide the political space for liberal politics. That all these measures were half-hearted and ultimately failed does not take away from their significance. It only indicates that it is not possible to usher in a “bourgeois” democratic revolution in a country like Pakistan without attacking, head-on, the property relations which underwrite its State and without making a clean break with Imperialism.

This Musharraf and the Pakistani military are incapable of doing. What is of more importance for leftists is that neither are the Asif Zardari’s and Nawaz Sharif’s capable of doing that. Moreover, there is no indication that the Pakistani military is going to vacate the commanding heights of the State. Musharraf remains the President and the army all-powerful. It is surely a sobering thought that most commentators have noted that the Pakistani military “chose” not to interfere in the electoral process which allowed this particular outcome. It may well chose otherwise in the coming weeks, months or years. Are the democratic forces in a position to stop the Pakistani army from making that other “choice”? While I surely hope they succeed, I am yet to see the evidence on the ground.

The social and economic contradictions which mark the Pakistani State and its polity remain what they were ten weeks ago. Moreover, the victors of these elections do not yet have a political agenda or manifesto which can lead to a major shift or closure of these contradictions. It also should be remembered that this electoral mandate is based only on two out of five Pakistani voters. The current run of deadly bombings also show that the religious fascists have not been weakened organisationally. It is important to celebrate our victories, as these elections surely were. But it should be well remembered that to over-estimate the import of our victories or our strength is a sure-shot way of conceding a future defeat.

As a well-wisher of the Pakistani people and their comrade, this columnist hopes this election victory is the first step towards the building of a democratic, progressive Pakistan and that his gloomy prognoses will be thrown into the dustbin of history.

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This article was published in The Post, on 12 March, 2008 in an altered version to protect my publishers from the wrath of the military. It was also published in the Human Rights Journal of Jammu and Kashmir.

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