By Minerwa Tahir
The arrest, and then the release, of Imran Khan, former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf, PTI, party, underline the deep divisions within the country’s ruling class and state institutions. Khan, who has faced accusations of corruption for months, was not arrested by the police but by the paramilitary Punjab Rangers.
Protests immediately broke out in many cities, eight people were killed in Peshawar while more than 2000 others were arrested. Other party leaders such as Asad Umar, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Fawad Chaudhry, Jamshed Iqbal Cheema, Falaknaz Chitrali, Musarrat Jamshed Cheema and Maleeka Bokhari were also arrested. Unusually, demonstrators attacked army facilities in many districts.
Armed forces were deployed in Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Islamabad. In Sindh, a Section 144 order was imposed, banning any gatherings of more than four persons and all protests, demonstrations, rallies and sit-ins in the province until further notice. The army’s media wing, ISPR, issued a press release, warning that any further assaults on the army, law enforcement agencies, military or state installations or properties would be met with severe retaliation.
Since being deposed as PM last year, by a parliamentary no confidence vote widely believed to have been orchestrated by the Army, Khan has toured the country and built up powerful popular support in advance of forthcoming elections. Whilst he was formally arrested on charges of corruption, it is very clear that the reason behind it was political. Both the government of Shehbaz Sharif and at least parts of the military and state apparatus want to remove him completely as a potential challenger to their rule.
The Supreme Court order to release him, on grounds that his arrest was itself unlawful, is unlikely to be the last chapter in this story. Indeed, it did not even mean that Khan regained his freedom since the Court required him to remain in the building used as a temporary court room “for his own safety”. A re-arrest, using correct legal procedures, is still possible and even a crackdown on the PTI as a whole, banning the party, is not excluded. Prime minister Sharif has already branded the party’s protests as acts of terrorism. His opponents’ aim remains eliminating Khan as a candidate and a conviction on any of the corruption charges would ensure that.
Even then, the crisis facing Pakistan society, the desperate plight of the millions who lost everything in last year’s floods, the impact of the IMF’s conditions for financial support, coupled with the anger of Khan’s supporters, could shatter the country’s very fragile democratic institutions. The present government of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz, installed when Khan was deposed, was always only an interim solution. There are, no doubt, already elements in the army who see a full military coup as the only way to “re-establish order”.
If Khan regains his freedom, he will, of course, return to electioneering, whipping up his supporters in the light of the unlawful way he was arrested. The PTI is largely based on the “middle classes” but, not surprisingly for a populist party, has also appealed to the impoverished masses. Current circumstances will reinforce this turn as Khan condemns the lack of support for the homeless and the jobless and attacks the crimes of the rich and the repression of the security forces. This, however, is all demagogy. In office he did precious little to change anything, his differences with other factions of the ruling class and state apparatus have more to do with Pakistan’s foreign policy, to lean towards China and Russia, or turn back towards the USA and “the West”.
In the face of a developing constitutional crisis, it has to be recognised that the working class of Pakistan is poorly prepared to defend its interests and rights. Although there should be no political support for Imran Khan, there was every reason to protest at the barbaric behaviour of the army unit that arrested him.
Moreover, all factions of the ruling class are agreed on the need to implement the vicious conditions of the IMF deal and to resist all attempts to defend wages against inflation and jobs against cuts and privatisations.
In this situation, it becomes all the more necessary for forces of the Pakistani Left and women’s and national minority movements to mobilise and provide an active alternative to standing on the sidelines. We call on the Labour Qaumi Movement, other trade unions, leftist, feminist, youth and other progressive organisations, as well as organisations of oppressed nationalities and other social groups to unite against the increasing authoritarian rule as well as against the rising inflation. The key issues and demands should be:
– A minimum wage, sufficient for a better life for workers. Wages should be linked to inflation in the prices of essential goods. For every one percent rise in the inflation rate, wages should rise by one percent.
– All privatised concerns should be re-nationalised under workers’ control.
– Instead of reducing jobs, cut the working hours, with no loss of pay, to prevent unemployment.
– Increase education and health budgets by imposing a wealth tax on capitalists, big landlords, multinational companies and other rich sections of the society.
– An end to all privileges and tax breaks for the big land owners and the capitalist class.
– Massive subsidy should be introduced in agriculture. Moreover, the lands should be taken away from the big landowners and handed over to farmers and rural labourers.
– The budget for development projects should be increased massively so that social amenities and housing can be built for the working class and the rural and urban poor.
– Nationalise the power generation companies under the democratic control of the working class.
– Reject the IMF programme, refuse to pay the debts of the international economic institutions.
The fight for such demands requires organisation. Where unions exist they should raise these demands but, where they do not, the priority must be building democratic workplace organisations, first and foremost to confront employers but also as a step to the building of permanent industrial unions. In working class districts, socialists should argue for the formation of local councils of delegates from those workplace organisations and unions, to spread organisation, organise solidarity and formulate policies as events unfold.
Should the Army High Command decide to resolve the present political crisis by taking control itself in a military coup, as it has done in the past, socialists should call for a general strike, mobilised by the existing unions and workplace organisations. Unlike the mass demonstrations of recent days, a general strike has the potential to bring the country to a halt, posing the question of who should rule, the people or the military top brass?
Even without a coup, it is increasingly likely that the country is moving towards a constitutional crisis which will pose the same question. Our answer to that should be the call for a Constituent Assembly, a democratic forum in which to decide precisely that, who should rule? Such an assembly cannot serve its purpose, if it is controlled and convened by the existing elite and its parties. Its election and convocation need to be controlled by committees of the workers, peasants and poor.
Within a Constitutional Assembly, socialists will call not only for the full democratic programme of equal rights for all citizens and recognition of the right of self-determination for national minorities but also for the key working class demands necessary to begin the task of building socialism; expropriation of big capital, socialisation of the land and natural resources, seizure of imperialist assets, rejection of debts to imperialist institutions and the introduction of planning.
Such a programme can only be realised through mass struggle, culminating in a workers’ and peasants’ government, a government based on their own organisations to deal with the current disastrous situation and defend the interests of the vast majority of the population. All those committed to such a strategy should unite to form a revolutionary working class party.