Economic, Political Crisis Shakes Pakistan
A ballooning budget deficit, soaring unemployment, rising foreign debt, and default on loan payments to the International Monetary Fund underline a steep economic downturn in Pakistan. Opposition groups succeed in unleashing a wave of anti-austerity protests against the government. Political instability in neighboring Afghanistan raises prospects of new waves of refugees crossing the border into the country. Tensions and possibility of new military confrontations rise between Islamabad and New Delhi over control of Kashmir.
These events were the political backdrop to the November 5 decision by Pakistani president Farooq Leghari to dismiss Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and dissolve the National Assembly. Leghari issued a decree charging "corruption, nepotism, and violation of rules in the administration of the affairs of the government." The president named Malik Meraj Khalid, once a Bhutto family ally, as caretaker prime minister and announced elections for February 3.
In Washington, the Clinton administration has not made immediate comments on Bhutto's dismissal.
Many among the Pakistani ruling circles used charges of corruption, endemic in all capitalist regimes, to get rid of Bhutto in the hopes of forming a more stable government.
Bhutto was soon placed under house arrest, during which her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who also faces charges of corruption, was apprehended in Lahore, capital of Punjab province in central Pakistan. Zardari has allegedly made a fortune from kickbacks on government contracts of billions of dollars, and has invested in property purchases in England and maybe France. Bhutto had appointed her husband as minister of investments in September.
The caretaker government is preparing criminal charges against Bhutto and her husband. Interim prime minister Khalid announced in a November 10 news conference that the charges may be wide ranging, fueling speculations that they may prevent Bhutto from running as a candidate in the February parliamentary elections.
Bhutto blasted her removal by Leghari as a recurrent conspiracy "to get rid of the Bhuttos from Pakistan politics," and denied the charges in a 90-minute press conference. "I was the victim of a sustained smear campaign, from Washington, to Paris, to London. Lies, lies, lies!" she said.
Bhutto, 43, who was born into a wealthy family of landowners, has been ousted for the second time. She was dismissed for the first time in 1990, also under allegations of corruption. In 1976, Bhutto's father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown in a coup by Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Three years later, during Zia's reign, Ali Bhutto was hanged on charges of murdering a political opponent.
Many big-business newspapers in Pakistan have tried to implicate Benazir Bhutto's husband in the September killing of the ousted prime minister's younger brother and fierce political opponent Mir Murtaza Bhutto. Following antigovernment protests in the rural areas of Karachi, a Bhutto family stronghold, Ghinwa, widow of Benazir's brother, formally made the allegations before a Karachi judge.
In Karachi's poorest Urdu-speaking neighborhoods, small street celebrations were held after Bhutto's dismissal. Many working people there have been victims of political repression by the government. In this city of 11 million, around 2,000 people were killed in clashes with government forces last year. Reports in Pakistan's big-business press have attributed the killings to strife between the government and the Mojahir Qaumi Movement (MQM), an immigrant-based party that represents almost 60 percent of the city's population which was briefly an ally of Bhutto's ruling party during the late 1980s. Muslims, who migrated from India in 1947, when Pakistan and India were partitioned, make up the movement.
"But Karachi's problems don't just stem from ethnic violence," said an article in the July 19 Christian Science Monitor, "they are also due to a widespread breakdown in the city's social services, growing poverty... and rising joblessness."
The army in Pakistan, an Islamic republic with a population of 134 million, "is indisputably the force behind President Leghari," wrote Farhan Bokhari in London's Financial Times. While military officials downplayed their role during Bhutto's dismissal, soldiers kept a close watch at radio and television stations, airports and government offices, and at Bhutto's residence, giving a sense of a "military coup" in Islamabad.
The spiraling economic deterioration has played a role in the current political developments. The Pakistani regime has resisted economic pressures to reduce the 26 percent of the budget allotted for defense, citing military threats from its neighboring rival in India. According to a Pakistani Central Bank report, the current account deficit increased to a record of $4.2 billion.
The relations soured between Islamabad and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when Bhutto's regime was unable to meet the conditions of two IMF programs. The government was forced to negotiate a third financial program last October after the country's foreign exchange reserves dropped to $750 million - worth only four weeks of imports.
When the regime's June budget showed Pakistan would not meet the IMF requirements, the imperialist financial institution blocked drawings on a $600 million credit. In order to meet the IMF demands, the Bhutto government had imposed massive taxes four months ago to make 41 billion rupees (US$1 billion) to reduce the budget deficit by 4 percent by the end of the fiscal year. Last October, a second set of taxes was imposed to raise another 40 billion rupees, and included a devaluation of the currency by 8.5 percent.
The taxation measure targeted agriculture for the first time, alienating many rich landowners in Bhutto's party and fueling opposition. The steep increase in gas prices that followed the currency devaluation, prompted public protests as well.
According to the October 27 Sunday Times of India, the constant demands by the IMF for austerity to meet interest payments have contributed to the "deep recession" in the economy. The situation is aggravated by rising unemployment, which stood at 10 percent in 1991.
Opponent organizations called a strike October 26, demanding Bhutto's resignation and early elections. The action blasted the new taxes and austerity measures to comply with the demands of the IMF. The protesters accused Bhutto of financial mismanagement and corruption.
"There is no confidence in this government," said Mushahid Hussein, spokesperson for Pakistan Muslim League (PML), the largest opposition group. PML leader Nawaz Sharif welcomed Bhutto's ouster and expressed confidence in winning the announced elections. Sharif had himself been removed as prime minister in 1993 on similar charges of corruption.
Right-wing religious opponents announced plans to lead a million people on a march to Islamabad October 27 to demand Bhutto's resignation. Defying a ban on meetings of more than four people, members of Jamaat-e-Islami and the PML marched to the capital. Paramilitary troops and cops were deployed on all roads leading to the city. The police dispersed thousands of demonstrators with tear gas and batons, injuring at least 10. The protesters pelted the police with rocks, smashed vehicles, and set tires on fire. Jamaat leader Qazi Hussain Ahmad pledged more actions against the government.
The day before the rightist march, Pakistan interior minister Nasrullah Babaar warned Jamaat-e-Islami not to involve Afghan refugees in their protest actions. "If any Afghan refugees participate in the Jamaat agitation.... I will see that their family members are expelled from Pakistan," he told the Sunday Times of India.
Some 2 million Afghans live in refugee camps in Pakistan. Many support the Afghan fundamentalist groups fighting in that country. Jamaat-e-Islami has close ties with such Afghan groups. The Pakistani government has backed the reactionary Taliban regime that swept into power in Kabul September 27. A civil war is wracking Afghanistan, as opposition forces are trying to retake Kabul.
Meanwhile, the capitalist rulers in Pakistan and India continue their dispute over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The rival regimes have fought two wars over control of the area since 1947.
At the same time, Kashmiris have pressed their fight for independence. "Kashmiris have their own nationality. Kashmir is ours," Muhammad Gulzar, a young Kashmiri, told the Christian Science Monitor. "This matter must be solved peacefully and if that does not happen then we will pick up weapons and fight for the Kashmir issue. We want back our homes."
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