Pakistan: A revolution against whom?

Pakistan is a country often described as being on the brink – of what, precisely, is up for speculation. There are fears economic, social and political crises, separately and simultaneously, will cause the country to implode into an ungovernable, anarchical mess: a failing, if not failed, state.

Indeed, there are those who argue that this has already happened.

On the one hand, it is difficult to argue with the point that the country is facing simultaneous challenges on several fronts.

With inflation on basic household items at 18.88 per cent (according to government figures) and unemployment at an estimated 15 per cent (according to the CIA’s World Factbook), households in Pakistan are feeling the economic pinch.

Simultaneously, the country appears to lurch from one political crisis to another. The latest issue in the political sphere could have come straight out of a spy novel: the case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistanis on a Lahore street who he said were attempting to rob him, and was then released after the payment of $2.3 million in compensation to the victims’ families.

The opposition, led by Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party, has slammed the government for dithering over the issue of whether or not Davis had diplomatic immunity, and for allowing the deal to be struck, terming it a question of sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the opposition also continues to criticise the government for its performance on service delivery, revenue generation, economic policy and foreign policy (specifically its stance to tacitly stand by the US and its use of drone strikes on Pakistani territory, while simultaneously being unable to curb extremist attacks in the country).

Things do not appear much better on the social front, with public discourse lurching towards an ever-narrower view of what is acceptable, as evidenced by the recent killings of Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities, and Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, for their stance against the country’s blasphemy laws as they currently stand. Analysts argue that the murders are indicative of a country where the social sphere is going through an upheaval that leaves less and less space for liberal discourse.

It is the Davis case, though, that Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, believes will be the spark that lights public discontent into a mass uprising. Speaking to Time magazine, he says the country is “completely ready” for a revolution, “even more … than Egypt was”.

Khan called for mass rallies to be held on the Friday after Davis was released, but only a few hundred people showed up at the PTI’s gatherings. Several religious parties, too, called for demonstrations, but were unable to create significant momentum. This after weeks of rallies in several cities where thousands would call for Davis to be tried and hanged.

So what’s the difference, then, between Pakistan and Egypt, or Tunisia, where popular uprisings based on several of the same push-factors (high inflation, rampant unemployment and a public that feels completely disconnected from the power of the State) have occurred?

“You quickly run out of the similarities [with Egypt and Tunisia],” says Cyril Almeida, an Islamabad-based columnist. “Far more interesting, and numerous, are the differences.”

Almeida points out that the uprisings currently being seen across the Middle East are aimed at “long-running dynasties or autocratic rulers”.

Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Manama’s Pearl roundabout and Sanaa’s University Square were united by one slogan: “The people want the fall of the regime”.

“In Pakistan … we get rid of our dictators every ten years or so… There is no ‘regime’ to overthrow … the first question is: an uprising against whom?” asks Almeida.

And it is that question that strikes to the heart of the difference between Pakistan and Arab states that are currently facing political upheaval. The political landscape in the country is fundamentally different from that of the Arab states where uprisings are currently occurring, because while protesters in Tripoli, Sanaa, Manama, Cairo, Tunis and other cities were calling for dictators to be overthrown and free and fair elections to be held, Pakistan has no ‘regime’, and already holds elections.

“Why would you need an uprising against Asif Zardari [Pakistan’s president] when you know 24 months from now that he’s going to get chucked out? Who do you revolt against?” asks Almeida.

“You can argue that there can be a popular uprising against the political system itself, i.e. against electoral democracy predicated on routine elections and transfer of power, but then you’re in a very different kind of uprising,” he says.

Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, a professor of political science and a political analyst, agrees.

“It is different [from the Arab world] in two or three respects,” he told Al Jazeera. “First, the political system is not so oppressive in Pakistan, and you have a lot of freedom to express your views to organise against the government, set up political parties. And the media, unlike the media in the Arab world, is very free.”

Moreover, Pakistan arguably already saw its own popular uprising in 2007, when lawyers led a successful political protest movement against former president, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf.

Second, Rizvi points to an existing framework of elections allowing for governments to be changed.

His third point, however, is as telling as the question of who to revolt against:

“Unlike Egypt, or even Tunisia, there is a lot of fragmentation, both political and religious. Split after split – the situation is very polarised in Pakistan. And the religious parties are too ideological and more literalist in their approach than the Islamic parties in [those countries]. The possibility of a nationwide uprising that involves all sections of the population – all political, ideological and ethnic groups – that  kind of possibility is very limited.”

Rizvi says that while there are “common factor[s]” in the population of Pakistan being very young, an “acute dissatisfaction with the performance of the government at all levels, whether federal or provincial”, and “widespread alienation from the rulers and the democratic experiment”, the greater danger in Pakistan is of a government that is unable to govern.

“Pakistan is threatened with a state of anarchy,” he says, “rather than a nationwide agitation that would topple the government… the situation may be different in Pakistan, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things are stable.”

An economy in crisis

Economically, too, Pakistanis are caught between a (increasingly expensive) rock and a hard place. With prices of household goods spiraling (though below the inflation levels of more than 20 per cent seen in 2008), and limited opportunities for work for both skilled and unskilled labour, they are feeling the pinch.

Kaiser Bengali, a well-respected economist who has worked with the Pakistan People’s Party-led government in the past, argues that the situation in the rural areas is not as bad as in urban centres, where “manufacturing is in a state of recession”.

For Bengali, the main issue remains one of revenue generation. Without adequate revenue, the government continues to run a deficit of around six per cent, two percentage points above what was agreed under the terms of an International Monetary Fund emergency loan taken a little over two years ago.

Tax collection rates remain low, and “any new tax would meet opposition”, Bengali says, because taxes that target industries would hurt the PML-N’s primary electorate in Punjab.

“Currently the government is trying to meet the deficit [targets of four per cent set by the IMF] by cutting development expenditure,” he told Al Jazeera. That means less money for everything from road and infrastructure construction to income support programmes for the country’s poor.

Bengali argues that between fighting an insurgency, providing flood relief and a “stagnation” of revenues, the government is forced to “squeeze” on development projects that not only provide infrastructure, but also jobs.

In recent months, the government has seen a large amount of political wrangling over the issue of a Reformed General Sales Tax (RGST) and a proposed agricultural tax that would target large landholdings.

Bengali argues that the RGST, an indirect tax, in actuality targets large industries as much as it does consumers, and that the agricultural tax is a “good political slogan”, but difficult to enforce.

In a sign of how dire Pakistan’s income emergency is, the government on March 15 unveiled a “mini-budget” that, between expenditure cuts and new taxes, would free up Rs120 billion. The move implements development expenditure cuts and introduces Rs53 billion in new taxes on income, imports, agriculture and other sectors. The taxes were introduced through presidential ordinances, exempting them from parliamentary approval, with the express intention of meeting the IMF targets.

Almeida sums up the economic stresses, independent of the government’s budgetary concerns:

“The economy is doing wretchedly, there is rampant unemployment and lack of growth combining to leave the urban poor particularly vulnerable, if not already plunged into a state of deep economic misery.”

Of right wing parties and ‘confused idealists’

Activists in Pakistan say that while the economic and political stresses exist in Pakistan, the difference in landscape makes an uprising unlikely.

Al Jazeera spoke to Fahad Desmukh, a Pakistani activist and journalist who has lived in Bahrain, where the February 14 uprising is currently calling for major political reforms, for much of his life.

“Bahrain is relatively free socially, but not politically … opposition activists have been jailed for demanding changes, so the avenues available for expressing social and political frustration are limited,” he says. “On the other hand, Pakistan has a much longer history of political activity, with long-established political parties, student groups and labour unions. The parliament and the executive are elected, and the media is much more free. It means there are more avenues to express frustration and ‘let off steam’, as it were.”

Desmukh argues that given the lack of a ‘regime’ to revolt against, the only kind of uprising that would “make sense” in Pakistan would be class-based, aimed at ending the country’s feudal system. He concedes, however, that “this seems unlikely in the near future”.

The only other option would appear to be protests against the country’s military, which holds great influence over the political sphere, but Desmukh, Rizvi and Almeida all agree that such action is also unlikely.

Beena Sarwar, a political and human rights activist, argues that those calling for a popular uprising in Pakistan are actors “who know they will not come into power through the electoral process – the right wing so-called religious parties… and confused idealists like Imran Khan who seem to have no grip on political realities”.

Sarwar says that included in this group are politically disillusioned educated young people who are “alienated from the political process” and are “fired by emotion, youthful zeal and vague ideas of Islamic supremacy and anti-Americanism”.

She argues that wide-ranging political change “will come if the political process is allowed to continue”, through the political parties and parliament, without interference from Pakistan’s military, which, historically, has interrupted democratic transitions with coups.

Democracy’s ‘birth pangs’

Rizvi, the professor of political science, and Almeida, the columnist, both disagree, however, at least in so far as the chances of there being any actual positive change.

Almeida says that while he expects elections to take place as scheduled in 2013, “electoral disappointments are likely”.

“People forget that the only other option for power [the PML-N] is already in power in Punjab. It mirrors the PPP’s performance … between the PML-N in Punjab and the PPP in Islamabad, there is very little to tell them apart, in terms of incompetence.”

“The latest phase of electoral politics is less than three years old, so I don’t think there’s any fatigue with the system, even if there’s genuine tiredness with the current government… Ultimately the great worry for Pakistan is that it may not have enough time to go through the birth pangs of democracy because of the security situation.”

Rizvi agrees that the outlook for political change is bleak.

“[The political parties] are good at engaging in polemics, they are good at criticising, but none has been able to present a formula or a framework for addressing socioeconomic problems,” he says, pointing to the example of the issue of terrorism, on which political parties “make ambiguous statements and avoid taking a categorical position against particular groups”.

“I don’t expect [new political players to gain popular support] in the near future, because all the political parties lack ideals and a sense of direction, except in rhetoric.

“The thing I would repeat is my fear that increasingly the Pakistani state system is on a very fast downward slide. If it is not collapsing, it is losing its capacity to function effectively.”

With another military coup unlikely, given that the memory of a Pakistan under Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf that was not doing much better is still fresh in most Pakistanis’ minds, and the likelihood of substantive political change from within the existing system being limited, at least in the short term, what appears most likely is that Pakistan will, as it has for so many years now, blunder on.

It is a country riven with ethnic, religious and political divisions, battling multiple insurgencies (in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Balochistan), and facing both economic and identity crises.

“And yet,” as Anatol Lieven, a scholar and journalist argues in a soon to be released book, “it moves.”

( / 28.03.2011)

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