Pakistan appears to be repeating its three-year cycle of political instability. On July 21, Karachi, Lahore and a number of other cities were virtually paralyzed over a transport strike organised by the opposition parties protesting against massive taxes imposed in the June 13 budget.
The taxes have hit the common man extremely hard without touching the feudal lords. They pay no taxes but enjoy the perks of office. Prime minister Benazir Bhutto, herself a member of this feudal class, is quite shaky now and her continuation in office appears less certain than it was only a few months ago. Unfortunately she has only herself to blame. Unlike her first term, she neither has a hostile president nor an intriguing army chief to contend with. But as her troubles mount, their support cannot be taken for granted. Her lack of concrete achievements despite nearly 1,000 days in office and increasing polarisation in the society may force her traditional supporters to pull the props away.
The lack-lustre performance of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has been somewhat off-set by the emergence of Imran Khan on the political scene. The former cricket star has strong foreign, especially Jewish connections through his in-laws. Further, unlike Benazir and her husband Asif Ali Zardari, Imran is untainted by corruption. The west in general and the US in particular, have two major objectives in the Muslim world: the emergence of Islam in a dominant role, and nuclear programme. In Pakistan, the narrow-minded sectarianism of the mullahs has given the secularists a freehand. Pakistan’s nuclear programme, unfortunately has been dealt a blow by the insincerity of the Bhutto family. Benazir’s mother, Nusrat is reported to have spilled the beans to the US after her daughter was dismissed from office in 1990.
Benazir would have even recognised Israel but for the bad manners of the late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. The Israelis do not want merely a `friendly’ Pakistan; they want it neutered. That is where Imran may oblige if Benazir has not already done so.
Pakistani politicians have no principles. Intrigue and shifting loyalties are their trade marks. Of no fixed ideological address, they are willing to switch loyalties at the drop of a hat. This was witnessed in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in 1994 where a Muslim League-led coalition government was brought down by bribing a number of provincial legislatures with money taken from the Mehran Bank. The bank’s managing director, Yunus Habib is currently languishing in jail while the real culprit - Aftab Sherpao, who is reported to have taken Rs 300 million from the bank - is the chief minister of the NWFP.
In Punjab, the country’s largest and most important province, Benazir’s People’s Party (PPP) played an even dirtier game. There, the speaker of the former assembly, Yassin Wattoo, was lured away in 1993 from the Muslim League and offered the post of chief minister. Wattoo and a number of others willingly obliged. Last year, however, when the in-fighting in Punjab escalated, Wattoo was unceremoniously dismissed. He has now rejoined Nawaz Sharif and lodged a case in the high court. A number of other cases are also before the courts but the first blow was delivered by the judiciary itself. It has become more assertive in recent months. Temporary appointments by Benazir to both the supreme and high courts were reversed by the chief justices. They ruled that in future, the government must not appoint any judges without consulting them. This degree of assertiveness by the courts is new. The dismissal of the jiyala judges in March was also a blow to Benazir’s authority. Then came the June decision of the high court restoring local bodies that had been dismissed in Punjab. The court order was violated the next day by the Punjab government but it may prove problematic for Benazir. The local bodies issue will not go away so easily. Similarly, if Wattoo’s dismissal as chief minister is declared unconstitutional, Benazir will be forced to call fresh elections with the loss of Punjab to the opposition.
With the mood in the country extremely hostile over the massive new taxes introduced in the June budget, which have pushed prices of essential commodities skyhigh, the chances of the People’s Party retaining power are, at best, slim. The PPP does not have a clear majority in parliament. It clings to power with the help of a breakaway faction of the Muslim League. A group of parliamentarians have now created a splinter group. This faction of 11 members could pull other disgruntled members away from Benazir.
The heavyhanded manner in which the Jama`at-e Islami’s march was disrupted and four people killed in police firing on June 24 in Rawalpindi will also cost Benazir dearly. The Jama`at is like a hornets’ nest; disturbing it can lead to unpleasant consequences. The Jama`at may not have much electoral strength but its cadre are disciplined and can paralyze the government. Thus a number of forces are coalescing against Benazir. If the political temperature rises, the military - the traditional arbiter of power which claims to be neutral so far, at least in public - may withdraw its support from her. This may be spurred by the news that the country’s banks have been milked dry.
Hardly a single bank is solvent, thanks to the excessive demands for uncovered loans by Asif Zardari and his cronies. One estimate puts the number of outstanding loans at more than Rs 100 billion (US$3 billion). This is an enormous sum of money for a country whose total export earnings in 1995/1996 fiscal year were less than $8 billion. Pakistan’s tragedy is that there is no process of accountability. Every ruler and his/her hangers-on steal countless millions and get away with it. There is not a single honest person among them. Both the opposition and the ruling party are thoroughly corrupt. It is this culture of theft and corruption that pervades every aspect of life. How long can the country continue in this state?
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996