State of the Left: Pakistan edition

Welcome to State of the Left, a regular, carefully curated collection of reading recommendations in search of the big picture for tired and hungry progressives.

Today, a special edition of State of the Left. Pakistan is often understood by outsiders as a nasty problem that needs to be dealt with. But when you’re looking through the crosshairs of a drone, the concept of “problem” is rather limited, and “solution” even more so. Ghazal Farrukhi walks us through the political prospects of a country on the brink, surveying reasons for hope and pessimism as Pakistan takes unprecedented steps in committing to the democratic process.


Election fever is in the air in Pakistan. In February 2013, the democratically elected members of the country’s National and Provincial Assemblies will step down after five years, in preparation for general elections 60 days later under the aegis of a caretaker government. Many governments have come into power in Pakistan since 1947, several of them elected. Yet in 65 years of independence, this will be the first time that a democratically elected government is able to complete its tenure in power. What, if anything, does this mean for Pakistan, and its current trajectory?

Liberal Democracy, and Its Alternatives?


The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came into power in 2008 after a sustained mass movement, known as the Lawyer’s Movement, to unseat military dictator Pervez Musharraf. In the years since, the civil-military balance has remained tense. It remains difficult to know who really controls certain areas of government such as foreign policy and counter-terrorism strategies. How much real power the government has in either case is debatable. Although the elections mean that progress has been made, a major battle for the next government will continue to be simply remaining in power against the possibility of another military coup.


The final piece in post-Musharraf Pakistan has been the almost unprecedented wave of judicial activism by the Pakistan Supreme Court, in particular the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. The Lawyer’s Movement of 2007 was in part led by a popular movement to restore the Chief Justice after he was removed by Musharraf. Since his restoration to the post of Chief Justice in 2008, Pakistani courts have witnessed an upsurge in the suo moto cases picked up by the Supreme Court—issues of law that the Court notices on its own rather than responding to a petition filed in court. The Supreme Court has gone from strength to strength, with many in the country cheering the Chief Justice on as he tackles issues as varied as the price of fuel to the ‘corruption case’ against the president. The latter in particular even led to the dismissal of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani in early 2012 for contempt of court.

Earlier, the judges were criticized by some commentators for appearing to target the sitting government and ignoring any issues or breaches of the law by the army. Recently, however, this assumption too was challenged as the Asghar Khan Case was heard in court. In an unprecedented step, the verdict openly accused former heads of the national security agency, the ISI, of rigging elections in the 1990s by buying off politicians. The Supreme Court has now challenged both other key players in Pakistan’s power set-up, the military and the parliament. While the Chief Justice certainly took on many issues with populist overtones, how much of a real, tangible solution can self-selecting judicial activism be? The implications of the Supreme Court’s deployment of its power can only become clearer in the future. What is already apparent, however, is that far from being an aloof and apolitical branch of state, the Pakistani judiciary is as much a political player in the country as the elected legislators and the Army.


The current unpopularity of the PPP and its coalition partners among large portions of the population—in particular the urban middle classes—appears to be matched only by despair at the alternatives on offer. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) currently sits as the largest party in Opposition, and also rules the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces. The party that wins Punjab wins Pakistan, they say, and the PML-N ought to be confident here. Yet alternatives are, very slowly, creeping up. The first of these is the much-vaunted ‘tsunami’ of change led by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Imran Khan, a former cricket superstar who has won many over with conspicuous philanthropy projects, demonstrated his arrival as a serious contender last October with major rallies in Lahore, Karachi and other urban centres. His campaign platform is a mixture of fierce and principled opposition to the ‘war on terror’ and drone attacks in the northwest, and a promise to root out entrenched elites, corruption and ‘inefficiency’ to solve Pakistan’s various internal ailments. He cemented this stance with a well-publicized ‘march to Waziristan’ to protest against the drone attacks, claiming to be the first national-level politician who has gone to FATA. Yet as the elections draw closer and the PTI’s rather populist rhetoric comes under closer examination, Imran Khan’s tsunami appears to be ebbing. There are concerns that Khan’s comfort with the Pakistani Taliban goes beyond advocating for an end to the war, while others worry that he is far too close to the Army.  It remains to be seen not only how much of a real alternative he can offer to the mainstream political parties, but also whether he will be in a position to provide that alternative at all.


Other voices, too, have now dusted off their claims to the revolution Imran promises. Various factions of Pakistan’s dormant Left have very recently reunited, with the intention of harnessing the desire for real change much of the country still asks for five years after overthrowing dictatorship. Once a vibrant political force, socialist and Communist parties were repressed by the state during the late 1970s and 1980s, and consigned to the sidelines of Pakistan’s politics. As the Awami Worker’s Party attempts to consolidate itself over time as a party with mass appeal and political clout, it will position itself as a third alternative between “an anemic democratic camp” and anti-democratic forces. While the party’s focus perhaps ought to lie in the post-elections period considering the recentness of the merger, the re-awakening of the Pakistani Left’s ambitions can only be a welcome addition, both as a voice to the working classes neglected by the country’s feudal and neo-liberal elite, and also as a fresh entrant to the rather tired political discourse currently on offer.

Recommended reading: Return of the left: Will the hammer and sickle be enough?

New governments, old problems

Achieving liberal democracy has been a hard-fought battle in Pakistan, and as suggested, there is still a long way to go. Yet even modern liberal democracy has its limitations, it appears. Several challenges will remain for the next government. Whether they are on the election agenda or not, it remains to be seen whether real, radical change can be effected for these pressing issues.


Balochistan’s many grievances been so badly mishandled by the establishment since the present uprising started in the early 2000s that full-fledged separatist sentiment is now almost everywhere in the province. Bodies continue to pile up in Pakistan’s largest, least populated and historically neglected province, and activists and political workers continue to ‘go missing’. The leaders of the movement are slowly disengaging themselves from the various processes of the Pakistani state. When Akhtar Mengal, a former Chief Minister and head of the Balochistan National Party, presented a six-point manifesto to the Supreme Court a few months ago, what was seen as a wakeup call for Islamabad, was in fact criticized in Balochistan itself in many circles for even suggesting that the federation could be preserved in any circumstance. While almost all mainstream political parties pledge ‘brotherhood’ for the Baloch, there appears to be an almost total lack of trust and perhaps even willingness on the part of the establishment to resolve the situation. The whispers of 1971 are only getting louder.

Recommended reading: Balochistan within and without


Bombs go off in Pakistan with a pattern. Eid, Moharram, other occasions of ‘heightened sensitivity’. With security a real and growing concern, the government has given itself the power to issue fiats suspending cell phone services temporarily in major urban centres, like Karachi, and Quetta, and also attempted to ban motorbikes, which are ubiquitous on roads as the vehicle of the Pakistani working and middle classes, when a greater-than-usual risk of terrorist attacks is felt. The government argues that terrorists use cell phones to detonate bombs, and motorbikes are often also used in such attacks. Both claims have been met with widespread public derision, and yet the sporadic bans continue by executive fiat in the name of ‘security’. While these crude attempts at a legitimate counter-terrorism policy on the part of the government are clumsy to say the least, they point to the worrying rise of the Pakistani security state, with state control over essential elements of daily life. Further, as the state gives itself these powers in the name of security against terrorists, what is truly worrying is the other purposes it has already begun to put these powers to. The anti-terror laws that were put in place during Musharraf’s time, meanwhile, do not look like they are going anywhere. It is unfortunately unlikely that any new government will give back these powers in the name of ‘national security’.


Malala Yusufzai, a 15-year-old girl who narrowly survived being shot in the head by the Taliban in October for her work as a grassroots activist, has since garnered enormous global attention. It seems as if Malala has been appropriated by now for almost every possible agenda relating to Pakistan out there, whether she agrees or not. What is most worrying is the use of her name to further the pro-war agenda in the northwest, by both American and Pakistani armies—an agenda Malala herself has stated she opposes. How should true progressives think through her shooting?

Recommended reading: The Propaganda War


Change is afoot all over Pakistan in a thousand different ways. The State of Pakistan’s Left is intertwined with the state of our democratic project. What remains to be seen is how the two continue together past February 2013.

Ghazal A. Farrukhi is a Teaching Fellow at a university in Karachi, Pakistan. She can be followed on Twitter here.