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Pakistan caught in the crossfire

1 April, 2015

On 17 March, Pakistan was again shaken by terrorist attacks. In Lahore, two Taliban suicide bombers left 15 dead. The number would have been far greater had they been able to get inside the churches in the district of Youhandabad.

Just a few days before, there were gun battles in Karachi between supporters of the Muttahia-Quami-Movement, MQM, rooted in the Muslim population that was forced out of India at the time of Partition, and the security forces in a struggle for control over the city.

Nor should it be forgotten that at the same time the Pakistan army is waging a war against the population of Waziristan, a part of the country where Pashtuns are the majority population, under the guise of “fighting terrorism”. Every year, this campaign has cost the lives of thousands of victims. Since the beginning of the “war against terror” at the beginning of this century, millions have been forced from their homes.

Yet this is clearly only the “tip” of the manifold crises that have kept this country in a stranglehold for years.

Economic situation

Until the great depression of 2008, Pakistan counted as one of the miracles of neoliberalism with GDP growth rates averaging 7 percent per year. Under the dictatorship of General Musharraf, foreign direct investment flowed into the country, agricultural production was oriented to the world market and the stock exchange in Karachi boomed.

The army did not only control political events. As in many other similar countries, in Pakistan it is the owner of factories, banks, and land and thus of an important part of the total capital in the country. Former high-ranking officers received, and still do receive, whole companies or shares in companies in recognition of their service, thereby becoming themselves owners of capital. In 2008, however, they had a rude awakening. The boom ended with the threat of state bankruptcy and an inability of the country to pay its debts. The IMF rushed to provide credit of $7.6 bn in November 2008 but this rapidly had to be increased to $11.3 bn.

In recent years, GDP growth has again stabilised at around 3 percent but that is too little to put the country back on track. Servicing the debt and meeting the IMF conditions have forced the country into ever more “restructuring measures”, which resulted in neglect of public investment, decay of the infrastructure and privatisation of public assets. According to the neoliberal experts, this should have attracted Western investment but this has not been forthcoming. Since 2008, foreign direct investment has been running at about $3-$4 bn per year, as compared to $8 bn in the “boom years”. The rate of inflation has been swinging between 10 and 20 percent.

Political instability

Political instability is both a result and a cause of the economic misery. After the forced resignation of Musharraf in the face of a gigantic democratic mass movement based primarily in the middle classes and led, not accidentally, by lawyers, there were new elections.

The Pakistan People’s Party won those elections and Ali Zardari, who, because of his well-known corruptibility, was known as Mr 10 percent, became prime minister. He continued with the neoliberal policy of his predecessors and also with support for the US-NATO war in Afghanistan and the oppression of the country’s own border regions and national minorities.

For the population there was little to smile at, the promised “improvements” never materialised. In the 2013 elections, the PPP and Zardari were punished and the other traditional bourgeois party, the Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, took over the reins of government. It presented itself as the “party of peace” which would bring an end to the war in the border regions by negotiations with the “moderate” Taliban and would also normalise relations with India in order to give a boost to the economy. This would be further stimulated by major projects. Finally, Sharif promised to scale back the influence of the military and the secret services to the “normal” level for bourgeois democracies.

None of this happened. First, the military very skilfully used a governmental crisis resulting from mass protests organised by the bourgeois opposition around the populist Imran Khan and his “Justice Party” to force political compromises from the Prime Minister. The proposal for closer ties with India, the “arch enemy”, disappeared altogether. The influence of the military in foreign policy grew massively.

The attacks on schools and other civilian institutions by the Taliban, although they were a reaction to the bombardment of the border regions by the Pakistan army and, above all, US drones, led to a new massive invasion of the Pashtun-dominated border region by tens of thousands of soldiers. Sharif, who had at first promised peace through negotiations, now declared a “People’s War” against the “Taliban”, in reality against the national minority. On this, unlike on any other policies, he was assured of the support of all fractions of the Pakistani ruling class.

The government tried to hide the growing social and economic problems through its warmongering. However this solved nothing. On the contrary, the antagonism between the different wings of the elite, between the civilian and military structures, between the different nationalities, including the capitalist classes of the different nationalities, the decline of the middle classes who had achieved a certain standard of living during the boom phase and above all the prospect of further advancement, all these were unavoidably sharpened, thereby deepening the structural crisis of the country.

US-China rivalry

Ever since its establishment, Pakistan has been a country controlled by imperialist powers. The foundation of the state itself was inextricably linked to the interests of British imperialism which, when it could no longer prevent the independence of India, opted for a divided and weakened India. Right up to the present day, enmity towards India is a central pillar of state ideology and the legitimisation of the “unity” of Pakistan. The dominance of Britain was quickly replaced by that of the USA, which dominated the destiny of the country for decades including establishing Pakistan as the base for the invasion of Afghanistan with the active assistance of the country’s military and Establishment.

Although earlier Pakistani governments had tried to establish a foreign policy orientation towards China, alongside the alliance with the USA, it was only in recent decades that this developed at a dramatic pace. The reason for these is not difficult to see. The USA is trying to limit the growing influence of China in Asia. In this, India is seen as a partner or, rather, puppet. More recently, a new regime has been installed in Sri Lanka for the same reason.

For Pakistan, its status as a semi-colony dominated by the USA and IMF has become more and more of a problem and a closer alliance between India and the USA is seen as an extremely threatening scenario. For its part, China continues to need semi-colonial allies and areas for exploitation in its struggle for a re-division of the world.

As a trading partner, China is set to overtake the USA. In 2012, 13.3 percent of all exports went to the USA, as compared to 10.9 percent to China. However, in 2013, China was far and away the leading source of imports, with 17 percent, while the US share was less than 5 percent.

Apart from that, Chinese capital has also appeared as an increasingly important investor in major infrastructure projects, including the construction of a new deepwater port at Gwaida. This lies strategically close to the Persian Gulf. In future, oil from the Arab countries and raw materials from Africa will be unloaded and transported to China overland. As part of this project, pipelines, roads, housing and even an airport are also being built.

Pakistan is a factor in the global economic and geo-strategical planning of China and, therefore, also of the USA’s counter strategies. The latter has every reason to view the approach of Pakistan towards China, and Iran, and their regular governmental consultations with the greatest suspicion.

While the Pakistan government may see the competition between the USA and China as offering a possibility for manoeuvring between the two in order to gain concessions, it is nonetheless clear that the struggle between these two giants will, in time, become a source of further political conflict and instability.

The working class and the peasantry

The instability, the internal conflicts within the capitalist class, as well as between the civilian and military administrations, and the advance of reactionary movements in Pakistan coincide with a historically weakened Pakistani Left and workers’ movement. This weakness does not only mean that the growing crisis and social collapse express themselves in the advance of reactionary currents, such as the Islamists, or bourgeois populism. It has also allowed the ruling class to “overcome” repeated crises which otherwise would surely have led to gigantic political movements of the working class and the peasantry.

Although there are nearly 50 million workers in Pakistan, the trade unions are very weak and divided and essentially restricted to the public sector.

The majority of the population still live on the land. Around 20 percent live below the official poverty line. Approximately one half are illiterate (33 percent of men and 66 percent of women). Almost one half of the workforce (49.1 percent in 2012) is employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing, but these only deliver some 20 percent of GDP. Approximately 13.3 percent of employment is in industry, which produces 24 percent of GDP, and within this the textile industry accounts for the lion’s share with 60 percent. Apart from that, employment is divided primarily between construction, 15.2 percent, trade, 9.2 percent, and transport and communications, 7.3 percent.

In private industry, poverty wages, overexploitation and child labour are the norm. However, in recent years, important and very interesting trade unions have begun to develop; for example, the Quami Labour Movement amongst the weavers, the trade union of workers in brick making and the first steps towards trade union organisation amongst those, mainly women, employed in home-based production. All the same, these are still only in the very early stages, they are not yet strong organisations and are subject to severe repression.

In the public services, there has been a series of major attacks and also some partially successful defensive actions. These have included workers in the health sector; nurses, care workers and junior doctors, in telecommunications and the oil industry in Sindh and also in the airports, the airlines and on the railway. All these struggles have been related to the neoliberal attacks and often to the threat of privatisations. The latter are often a direct result of IMF conditions.

At the present time, a decisive trade union conflict is developing in the still state-owned energy sector. The Water and Power Development Authority, WAPDA, is to be privatised. The trade union, “All Pakistan WAPDA Hydroelectric Workers’ Union” has organised several protest days and strikes since the beginning of the year but its bureaucratic leadership is fearful of a co-ordinated joint action.

Trade unions and the lack of a workers’ party

This does not only show the uncertainty of the trade union bureaucracy. It also reveals a series of political weaknesses of the entire Pakistan Left and workers’ movement.

With the defeat of the relatively strong Maoist left organisations in the 70s and 80s, practically all of the trade unions in the private sector that had been dominated by them were broken up, whilst the “nonpolitical” unions in the public sector to some degree survived even if this was only on the basis of their “pure” trade unionism. By and large, they kept themselves distant from “politics”. At the same time, their leaderships supported openly bourgeois parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party, or worse.

Where the “radical” left has, or had, influence in the trade unions it has generally acted not very differently from the “normal” trade unionists but with the added feature of binding small trade unions to “their” organisation, thereby creating small “red” unions which are generally completely ineffective as organisations and whose members generally do not know which “party” they are formally affiliated to.

As far as the real separation of political work and trade union work is concerned, this completely mistaken form of “political” trade unionism changes absolutely nothing. A central result of this political weakness and lack of clarity is that the fragmentation of the trade unions, and how to overcome it, is effectively not an issue for the Left.

A further, central problem is the lack of a workers’ party. The formation of the Awami Workers’ Party, AWP, is still far from overcoming this. Even though it organises thousands of members and is by a long way the biggest organisation left of the bourgeois parties, it is still not yet a party, but only the forerunner of a party. In recent weeks, it has become more active with meetings around International Women’s Day and support for, and initiation of, campaigns against privatisations.

Ideologically, however, the AWP is developing more and more as a reformist force which certainly stands for “socialism” as its long-term goal but whose daily politics is restricted to democratic and social reforms that have no connection to this “objective”. The left, centrist, wing of the organisation, with around 30 percent of the members, does want a clearer, more socialist, working class politics, however, it avoids a political confrontation with the current leaders.

Our comrades, supporters of the monthly newspaper “Revolutionary Socialist”, are fighting for the AWP to intervene actively in the militant trade unions and amongst activists in the various sectors, the youth, women and the oppressed nationalities, to build a real workers’ party based on a clear socialist programme of transitional demands.

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