Benazir Assassination: The Unprecedented Mass Reaction

by Farooq Tariq
chair of Labour Party Pakistan

[This article, edited somewhat for style purposes by Labor Standard, was posted on the Internet on Dec. 29, 2007.]

Pakistan has never seen so many people protesting in streets all over as been the case during the last two days. They were all united across Pakistan to condemn the brutal murder of Benazir Bhutto. The news was heard with a great shock and there was an immediate mass anger erupted in all parts of Pakistan. 28th December was the first day of general strike called by many groups ranging from political parties to various professional groups.

Most of elections posters, banners, flags, and billboards of Pakistan Muslim League (PMLQ) were the first victim of the mass anger. PMLQ is a General Musharaf creation after 1999; a major split of Pakistan Muslim League. The rest is headed by Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister. PMLQ has been sharing power with General Musharaf after 2002 and is comprised of the most corrupt feudal [landowners], capitalists, former army generals, and black marketers.

PMLQ had spent billions on these advertising materials, and all that was gone within few hours of mass reaction. It was very proudly claiming that it has done the homework. The work to remove all these anti-people election materials was done with utmost sophistication. None of the Pakistan People’s Party or Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz election material was removed.

Then it was the banks, mainly in Sind. They were attacked and the buildings were burned in many cities of Sind. Most ATM machines were destroyed. In some places, people were lucky to bring some money home. Banks had made unprecedented profits during the last few years. There was no free banking any more that was the case earlier from sixties.
Hundreds of private buses were burned in all parts of the country. The fares had gone too high during Musharaf’s eight years of rule. There were no more public buses. Most of PMLQ government ministers had their own bus companies and were making huge gains out of mass poverty.

 There were also incidents of burning of railway trains in Sind. According to Daily Jang 28 railway stations, 13 railway engines, and 7 trains have been burnt, resulting in over three billion Rupees loss. The rail fares were increased by many folds by the Musharaf regime in a bid to reduce the railway losses. The railway system has been partly privatized as well. The whole rail system has collapsed since 27th December night. Thousands of passengers are on the railway stations waiting for restoration. There is no sign of restoration for some days. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and two private airlines, Air Blue and Shaheen Air, have canceled all their domestic flights in the name of “rescheduling.” The staff did not turn up.

Thousands of private cars have been damaged all over Pakistan by the angry crowds, mainly youth. They were showing their anger against the car companies (mainly Toyota, Suzuki, and Honda), which made unprecedented profits during the last few years. Many leasing companies have robbed the growing middle classes by offering cars at abnormal prices. While the massive majority of population have no more subsidized public transport.

The houses and offices of PMLQ politicians, local government mayors and administrations are the other victims of the mass reaction. They have either been burnt or damaged.

Over 100 people have so far died in incidents related to the mass protest, killed either by police or by cross-firing of different groups during the last 40 hours.

Thousands and thousands have raised slogans against Musharaf regime and American imperialism after the death of Benazir Bhutto. The anger was accumulated during the last eight years and was manifested after this unthinkable incident. This was a response of the masses to the strict implementation of the neo-liberal agenda, which resulted in unprecedented price hikes, unemployment, and poverty. The anger that was to be shown in boycotting or participating in the elections has come out early after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

There is a great anti-Musharaf consciousness all over. It has been shown in different ways in different part of the country in different degree. The so-called capitalist economical growth under Musharaf has left millions in absolute poverty. There was no Pakistan shining as was propagated by the dictatorship at all times.

 The year 2007 has been a year of mass awakening. It started with the advocates’ movement after the removal of chief justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan. The chief justice Iftikhar Choudry said a big “No” to resigning under pressure from the generals. He was removed, only to be reinstated on 20th July after a massive movement of the 80,000-strong lawyers’ community. The lawyers were joined by political activists from almost all political parties, but not by the masses. The masses only welcomed the chief justice from the sides of the  roads and did not participate in the movement in real terms.
Musharaf got himself elected as president for the second five-year term in a “democratic manner” by a parliament elected for one five-year term. He was still wearing military uniform when elected as “civilian” president. His theme was “elect me president for the second term, and I will take off the uniform after taking oath as civilian president.”

The November imposition of martial law under the name of an “emergency” was used to remove the rather independent top judges of Pakistan. It put restrictions on the media and over 10,000 were arrested. Musharaf got himself duly “elected president” and took off the uniform after removing the top judges. His hand-picked judges gave him all the necessary backing. He was helped in this process by Benazir Bhutto, who was forced into, in Tariq Ali’s words, an “arranged marriage” by U.S. and British imperialism. In this unholy alliance, everyone was cheating everyone with utmost honestly.

The general elections were announced for January 8th and the “emergency” [supposedly] lifted after the large-scale repression and removal of independent judiciary. The regime was happy that everything was going according to “plan.” The Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto and Muslim Leagues Nawaz and Quid Azam (PMLQ), the three major parties, had agreed to participate in these fraudulent elections. The religious fundamentalist political alliance MMA had split on the question of participation in elections. One major part of MMA had gone to contest elections.

The election campaign ended and a boycott of the election started when the religious fundamentalist [or the military?] struck and killed Benazir Bhutto on 27th December evening. The “plan” was shattered into pieces. It was a big blow to agreed terms and conditions of various participating parties in the elections. It was not a bump in the road but a total destruction of the road of conciliations and compromises.

The murder of Benazir Bhutto is a double-edge sword. While it is big blow to the plans of British and American imperialism, it will also be no celebration for the religious fundamentalist forces. The initial anger has gone against the military regime and its crony politicians. It can go against the both [i.e., the religious fundamentalists too?]. No party will be able to celebrate the shocking killings.

But the Musharaf regime has understood this clearly and now is trying consciously to put the direction of the movement against the religious fundamentalists. Last night on 28th December, in a two-hour press conference, a military brigadier, representing the government named Baitullah Mehsud, an Al-Qaeda associate in tribal areas of Pakistan, as the one who carried out the attack.

Foolishly he tried his best to prove that Benazir Bhutto was not killed by a bullet but by the lever of sun roof of the bullet proof car while Benazir Bhutto was waving to crowds outside after the bomb blast. What difference it makes, if it is proved that Benazir Bhutto is killed not by the bullet but by another way? Not much.

The military brigadier’s explanation did not satisfy the angry journalists, who asked him again and again about the connections of secret intelligence agencies of Pakistan with Abdullah Mahsood. The question of why Mahsood was released quietly [in exchange for?] over 200 Pakistan army men on the day of imposition of emergency, who were kidnapped by his group a week earlier, went unanswered. The military Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has a longtime relationship with the religious fundamentalist groups dating back to the 1980s [during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan] when the imperialists and fundamentalists were close friends.

It is very volatile, unstable, unpredictable, explosive, dangerous, impulsive, fickle and capricious political situation. It never happened before in many years that mass reaction has erupted to this degree.

The general strike was a total success. All roads were empty. No traffic at all. All shops were closed. All industrial and other institutions were completely shut down.

After the initial inhibition to curb the strike, the regime has now issued strict orders to kill anyone on the spot if it is “looting” any thing. It has called the regular army in 16 districts of Sind and paramilitary forces elsewhere in Pakistan.

The regime has so far not postponed the scheduled elections but it is very difficult to hold elections in this situation. Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz and several other political parties have already announced to boycott the fraudulent elections.

Labour Party Pakistan is demanding an immediate resignation of Musharaf dictatorship and forming of an interim government composed of civil society organizations, trade unions, and peasant organizations. This is to hold free and fair general elections under an independent election commission. It is demanding an immediate restoration of top judges, and investigations of Benazir’s and others’ murders in this and previous bomb blast by these top judges. As part of the All Parties Democratic Movement, LPP is supporting a three-day general strike and linking it to the overthrow of the military dictatorship. It is asking all parties to reject the general elections fraud on 8th January and not to participate in these elections.

29th December 2007 (7am)