Up to 150 people were killed and 600 injured when suicide bombers attacked Benazir Bhutto’s procession, following her return to Pakistan from eight years of self-imposed exile on 18 October. She had been greeted by a massive turn-out of Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) members and supporters at Karachi airport. Benazir had shown some concern about security before her return and these concerns become reality when the two suicide bombers disrupted the rally. The government had issued security warnings about suicide bombings and asked the PPP to postpone the rally.
The Musharraf regime tried to delay her return for a few weeks but, although there was media speculation that she might delay, in the end she refused. But hundreds and thousands of PPP workers and supporters from across the country had come to Karachi to welcome their leader.
There are no exact and confirmed figures of participants, but independent sources put it around 400,000 to 600,000. The PPP claimed that three million attended and that they were all party people. There is no doubt that it was an impressive show by the PPP and it was the biggest political mobilisation in recent years. But it would be wrong to make a comparison with the 1986 reception in Lahore, when Benazir returned from her first exile. There are many differences between 1986 and 2007. The consciousness, mood, objective situation, the party and party policies are all very different in 2007 from 1986.
1986 and today
The politicians, intellectuals, PPP leaders and political commentators have made comparisons between this reception and the one in 1986. Everybody is focused on the numbers and no attention is paid to the content and mood. In 1986, when Benazir retuned from exile, the party was fighting against the military dictatorship and there was a lot of hope and trust in Benazir and democracy. There was a general radicalisation of the working class and poor masses. The PPP workers were fully mobilised and ready to take on any challenge. Revolution was on the agenda and the air was filled with revolutionary zeal and consciousness. The mood was of defiance and there was a clear consciousness of the need for radical change, at least amongst the political activists and the working class.
The PPP was still a party of the masses and had the support of working people. Benazir was a charismatic and trusted leader and there were many hopes and illusions in her. Benazir talked about radical change and there was a clear anti-establishment mood and slogans. In 1986, the most popular slogan in the rally was “Benazir has come and brought a revolution with her”. In 1986, the mobilisation was not sponsored and arranged by the party leadership, but a spontaneous one. Poor workers, peasants, students, youth, women and the urban poor came to receive her in Lahore as their own. There were around two million people on the streets and as many on the rooftops of houses and shops. The PPP was still a left-leaning populist party.
In 2007, the mood and consciousness is different. Hardly anybody in the party now talks about radical change or transformation. The dominant mood in the PPP is of compromise and political opportunism. The party leadership openly supports the free market economy and imperialist policies. The party leadership has openly negotiated with the military regime to enter into a power-sharing agreement. There are fewer and fewer illusions or hopes that Benazir will bring about real change. The overwhelming majority of the working masses no longer consider PPP as their party. This time, the PPP leaders put huge resources into the reception and mobilisation for Benazir. They arranged transport and food for workers and supporters to bring them to Karachi. There were very few people who went on their own to welcome their leader.
The party asked candidates for the National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies to bring people with them if they wanted to retain party support for the upcoming elections. Each candidate for the National Assembly was asked to bring 200 people and provincial assembly candidates 100. There were around 40,000 diehard workers of the party at the rally and the rest were either supporters or people brought by the candidates and leaders. According to government and media reports, the PPP hired more than 7,000 vehicles to bring people. All this was clearly reflected in the rally and reception. The main slogans this time were: “Benazir has come and brought employment with her” and “Benazir will become prime minister for the third time”.
Benazir is using the same slogans as before of “bread, clothes and shelter” (roti, kapra aur makan). But these words have lost their meaning after the two PPP governments of the 1990s. Benazir miserably failed to deliver during both terms. The air is littered with compromise and betrayals. Benazir talks about the problems faced by the working masses but she does not give any solutions. So it is not correct to make comparisons between 1986 and 2007. The PPP has transformed itself in the last 21 years – from a party of the masses to a party of rich, feudal lords and retired bureaucrats. In 1986, the party was formally in favour of nationalisation and socialism, but today the party stands for privatisation and the capitalist free-market economy.
National reconciliation and democratic transition
General Musharraf, through the ‘National Reconciliation Ordinance’, has announced the withdrawal of the corruption cases against politicians and bureaucrats during the period of 1988 to 1999. This presidential order was the outcome of the agreement reached between him and Benazir. It has paved the way for the withdrawal of all the cases against Benazir and her husband, Asif Zardari (known as ‘Mr. Ten Per Cent’ because of his corrupt practices!). This order gives an amnesty to all those politicians who were involved in the plundering of state resources but its main aim is to withdraw corruption cases against Benazir and her close associates. This was Benazir’s main demand when striking a deal with Musharraf. They have now agreed to work together in the next political set-up. American and British imperialism played a key role in this agreement. Both imperialist powers wanted to establish a political order in Pakistan in which military, secular and liberal political forces work together against religious extremism and militancy. American imperialism and the military regime have taken the PPP on board in this process of ‘national reconciliation’.
The ordinance has become one of the most controversial and criticised pieces of legislation in every section of society. This law has not only further eroded the image of the present regime but also badly damaged the reputation of Benazir Bhutto herself. Both Benazir and Musharraf have faced criticism for making the deal. Both have tried to justify it by saying that it is to smooth the transition from a military government to a fully democratic government. But in reality what it means is a transition from a naked military government to a covert military government.
This so-called transition will not make any difference to the lives of working class and poor people. It simply means that a more civilian-based government will implement and continue the policies of the present military regime. The existing economic, foreign and domestic policies will continue and there will be no relief for the working masses. This is not a ‘transition’ at all but a continuation of the old order with a new name and face. This deal is a marriage of convenience between the military-dominated establishment and the power-hungry Benazir Bhutto to carry out the imperialist agenda in the country and in the region. American imperialism is trying to form a ‘dream team’ in Pakistan and the Musharraf-Benazir coalition will be an important step in that direction. This dream team will not be able to bring stability in the country. This political disposition of forces will not be able to last long.
The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif has been kept out of this ‘reconciliation’. There is already resentment in Musharraf’s ruling PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) against this deal. Many of his party’s leaders have publicly opposed the new legislation and deal. Musharraf is walking on a tightrope, because he wants to continue supporting his old allies and, at the same time, take on board the PPP. It is becoming more and more difficult for Musharraf to keep intact the fragile coalition which is the PML-Q.
This is not the first time that Benazir has made a power-sharing agreement with the military establishment. She did the same in 1988 and failed to bring any change in the political order established by the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq.
War on terror and religious extremism
The suicide attack on the PPP rally in Karachi is a clear indication that the ‘war on terror’ has given rise to religious extremism in Pakistan. The mood of joy and festivity turned into mourning. It is not yet clear which extremist group was behind the attack but one thing is clear: the government will use it to curb and ban political activities and especially to ban rallies and processions.
Benazir Bhutto has alleged that she and the leadership of her party were the targets and she suspects that remnants of the Zia regime are behind this attack. She did not allege that the government was responsible for it but she suspected that three individuals in the government were behind it. Benazir has vowed to continue her fight against religious extremism despite the bombings.
The government and Benazir had talked about the possibility of attacks on her. The government provided full security including a bullet-proof armoured truck and explosive-jamming devices. She was given the protocol of a president and the government fully facilitated the PPP show. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), made up originally of Muslim refugees from India following partition, also gave full support and co-operation to the homecoming of Benazir Bhutto.
Benazir has declared the suicide bombing to be an attack on democracy and the political process. She not only wants to continue the war on terror but intensify it.
Benazir openly supports the military operation in the tribal areas. She wants to crush individual terrorism with the use of state terrorism. The experience of Iraq, Afghanistan and the tribal areas clearly shows that religious extremism cannot be defeated and wiped out with the use of state power and repression. Benazir Bhutto wants to simply use the military to solve this complex phenomenon. This strategy has failed so far and will not stop the rise of right-wing ‘political Islam’.
This attack is not an isolated incident but part of a series of events in the last few months. The reactionary fundamentalist section of the state has been using these militant groups to target their rivals and enemies. Different sections of the ruling class and state apparatus are fighting each other to gain the control of the state. This infighting has become more violent and open and has caused yet more uncertainty and destabilisation. Benazir Bhutto has formed an alliance with Musharraf to fight against the reactionary fundamentalist elements within the state apparatus and outside of it.
There is open warfare in the tribal areas between the military and the Islamic militant groups called local Talibans. These groups have declared war against the security forces and are now spreading this to the cities. Suicide bombers are their weapon in the cities. This infighting between different sections of the state could take an uglier and more violent turn in the coming period and could lead to chaos and anarchy. The attack on the PPP procession is a clear message to all those political forces which are against ‘extremism’ or considered pro-US. But the victims in these attacks and counter-attacks are mostly working class and poor people.
Is the PPP a way forward?
Very few, apart from the leaders of the PPP and die-hard party workers, plus the grouping in the PPP called ‘Class Struggle’, believe that the PPP can bring real change in Pakistan. Class Struggle (part of the Woods-Grant International – the IMT) is the only left group in Pakistan which still believes that the PPP is a working-class party. They have issued appeals to the PPP leadership to turn towards the left, yet the party is moving further towards right!
There are very few working-class people who believe that the PPP is a working-class party. Even the party activists no longer consider this party as the party of the poor and the masses. The power-sharing deal and ‘National Reconciliation Ordinance’ have even damaged the party’s reputation amongst the middle classes.
The PPP is no more the party of the downtrodden and the toiling masses; instead it is the party of big business and the feudal lords. The leadership of this party does not defend the interests of the working class and poor people but, on the contrary, it works in the interests of the ruling classes. The leadership of the party still talks about the problems faced by the people but they have no programme and strategy to solve these problems.
In the coming elections, the leadership might use radical rhetoric and try to give more left-wing colour to their speeches, but fundamentally the PPP will remain the party of the rich. It might be able to attract a layer of working-class people who might opt to vote for the PPP in the elections, in the absence of a viable alternative. But this will be a short-lived phenomenon as the party will not be able to solve the basic problems of the working masses.
At the moment there is a very thin layer in the working class which has any hopes in the PPP. This number could increase during the elections if some working-class people give critical support to the party as the ‘lesser evil’. Some may vote for what it stood for in the past and what they wish it to be. But generally there is not a high level of confidence in the PPP of today.
The Pakistan People’s Party offers no way forward because it is part of the system which has created the miserable conditions for the working class and poor people. It represents the same system which is repressive and anti-masses. The PPP represents the rotten capitalist and feudal system which represses and super-exploits the working class.
The workers and oppressed cannot defend themselves against capitalist and feudal exploitation through the PPP. The working class needs its own political organisation and platform to defend its political and economic interests. It needs a party armed with a clear radical socialist programme. Working class and poor people need a party with clear and independent class positions and policies.