The future of Pakistan's military regime

December 8, 1999


The future of Pakistan's military regime

By Farooq Tariq

The new regime of General Pervaiz Musharraf argues that the Nawaz Sharif government, which it overthrew in a military coup in October, was not able to save the system from a total collapse. Musharraf speaks of building a new system, minus corruption.

Yet it is clear that the system is too sick to be reformed. All the hue and cry about reconstruction and reforms is a futile effort to buy some more time.

With the recession of 1973/75, the world economy entered a new period of slower growth. In response, big business launched a worldwide economic and political offensive against working people. The objective was to make workers pay for the economic crisis unfolding in the capitalist system by reducing their living standards, rights and organisation.

The main elements of what has become known as globalisation were the lifting of controls on the flow of capital internationally, the deregulation of economies and workplaces, and the privatisation of publicly owned sectors. It also meant the cutting of social services and the forcing of working people into increased competition with each other to work harder for less. The essence of globalisation is that capital must be allowed to go wherever and do whatever it likes without any opposition, hindrance or regulation.

The collapse of the "socialist system" in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union from 1989-91, and its replacement by capitalism, gave impetus to this process. Led by US capitalism, big business moved to stamp its authority on the former Stalinist countries and increase its control over the former colonial countries. No corner of the planet was to be allowed to resist.

Big business journalist Thomas Freidman spelled out in the March 28 New York Times what underwrites globalisation: "... the hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without Mcdonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States army, air force, navy and marine corps." A hidden fist is only effective if it is taken out and used now and then for all to see.

Working-class leadership

Globalisation is all about transferring an enormous amount of wealth from the working class and the poor to the rich. The political and social consequences, especially in the Third World, make the question of how to control the masses — through democracy or military dictatorships? — more important. Pakistan has taken a lead in exploring the answer.

Seizing the opportunity given by the collapse of Stalinism, the capitalist rulers launched an ideological offensive which proclaimed that there is no alternative to capitalism, that socialism lies dead in the ruins of the bankrupt systems of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. However, the main reason the bosses' offensive has had the success it has is the role that the leaders of the workers' organisations have played.

This bureaucratic, privileged caste controls — and has paralyzed — the potentially powerful organisations of the working class. Believing that the working class is incapable of building a new society, it has accepted the argument that capital alone can rule the world and must be allowed to do what it likes. Workers must compete against each other for its favours.

In this decade, the working class's retreat, the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the imperialists' victory in the Gulf War and the 1990s economic growth cycle have allowed capitalism to restrain somewhat the potentially explosive effects of its worst contradictions. But the past period has also demonstrated that capitalism remains incapable of solving the problems of human society.

It is making life for the majority of the world's population worse, and the planet sicker. In spite of its stock market highs, its ideological offensive and its claims about the potential of new technology, capitalism remains a system that can no longer take humanity forward.

The neo-colonial countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America have plunged even deeper into poverty and starvation. In the advanced industrial countries, the working-class majority is working harder for longer hours for less income. The pollution of the air, sea and land, and global warming, have been proceeding apace.

And the ruthlessness and arrogance with which imperialism has been enforcing its rule has laid bare the workings of the class system — its power, the manner in which capital controls the political and legal systems, the media, etc. In Pakistan, with each turning point in politics, the system is more exposed. Unfortunately, with each political change, the "intellectuals" start crying: now it will be better, the system will be reformed and reconstructed.

Increased repression

The next economic downturn will increase the tensions amongst capitalists worldwide. Protectionism would threaten to gather pace and increased military conflict would be likely.

There would be a further fragmentation of states and catastrophes like the Balkan wars would become more widespread, as would conflicts such as that between India and Pakistan. There is hardly an area of the world where the potential for such conflict does not exist and the Balkans show what can develop where capitalism sinks deeper into crisis but the working class cannot show a way forward.

Nevertheless, the world's working class has been neither destroyed nor fundamentally weakened and civilian governments in the Third World, in order to carry out the dictates of imperialism, have had to increase state repression. The Nawaz Sharif government tried to strengthen itself with more dictatorial powers, but these were still insufficient to carry through the IMF and World Bank's restructuring demands. Thus, a coup to impose a dictatorship which could complete this task was needed.

Pakistan's experience could be repeated in other Third World countries. When "democracy" is unable to deliver the goods for imperialism, more repressive regimes are inevitable. Already, Indonesia's foreign minister has warned that if the new civilian government "fails", the military could take over.

The new regime in Pakistan will attempt to implement rapid privatisation, collection of debts, lowering of tariffs, devaluation, fuel prices increases, the reintroduction of a general sales tax and related economic measures.

However, it cannot easily achieve these goals. A serious collection of bank loan repayments would have a major negative effect on business and cause capital to flee the country, paving the way for more industries to collapse. Rapid privatisation and the lowering of tariffs would mean massive job losses, and sales taxes and price increases will throw a large proportion of the population into even deeper poverty.

The regime's current "liberal" phase is temporary, because it has not yet met much resistance. However, coming months will expose the real nature of the coup. When the pain of the regime's economic measures are felt, as it will very soon, the attitude among the masses of "wait and see" will change.

The Pakistani masses have no particular illusions in any bourgeoisie party and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League is unlikely to recover. The People's Party too has lost ground, so the main beneficiaries of opposition to the regime would be religious fundamentalist forces and, to some extent, the left.

The regime is unlikely to last very long. It has come into power in a period of deep economic crisis in the neo-colonial countries.

The imperialist powers can live with, but not openly support the new regime — they must answer to their own masses — and as the regime becomes more repressive, it will become more difficult for imperialism to support it.

While almost all the bourgeoisie opposition parties initially supported the coup, they could change their position. This is especially possible among the religious fundamentalists, who have already criticised the new regime which has not, unlike past military dictatorships in Pakistan, used religion as cover for its actions.

As the regime becomes more repressive, the imperialists, under pressure from the international working-class movement, may exert pressure on Musharraf to revert to democracy. A new "democratic" phase could have a completely different form, in which the military has much more influence, maybe even a constitutional role, as in Turkey and Indonesia.

The regime's attacks on Pakistan's working class will be severe. When the military was asked by the Nawaz Sharif government to help run the Water and Power Development Authorities, Musharraf's first demand was that the unions in WAPDA be banned. More recently, when Pakistan Railways announced the recruitment of 4000 new workers (for which there were 10,000 applicants), the military appointed a new railways secretary, an ex-army general, who stopped the recruitment and has begun investigating possibilities for privatising the railways.

The regime has already reduced the price of the cotton, thus benefitting the textile bosses and hitting peasants and small farmers hard. As well, the finance minister has flagged petrol price increases, the introduction of a GST and rapid privatisation. The implementation of such measures will confront resistance, nationally and internationally, and could lead to the exit of this regime long before it completes it plan.

[Farooq Tariq is the general secretary of the Labour Party Pakistan. He will be speaking at the Marxism 2000 conference in Sydney, January 5-9.]

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