Tariq Ali: “No Real Choice” at the Ballot Box for the People of Pakistan
Corruption keeps growing like cancer in Pakistan. This combined with military repression and on-going terror attacks from the Islamic State, Pakistanis will see a continuation of the status quo, says Tariq Ali
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Pakistan is heading for a crucial and tumultuous election next week. Leading up to the vote, one of the country’s past disgraced politicians, Nawaz Sharif, who got caught up in the infamous Panama Papers scam, returned to Pakistan from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he was in exile at his own villa. He was immediately taken to prison to serve a 10-year prison sentence for corruption. Now, the same day that Sharif arrived in Pakistan, on July 13, the country experienced its second worst suicide bombing ever. The bomb, for which the Islamic State took responsibility, killed 150 and wounded over 300 people. The attack targeted an election rally in the town of Mastung, in the southwest of Pakistan. One hundred and six million Pakistanis are eligible to vote in the parliamentary election on July 25. However, Pakistan’s independent human rights organization says that these elections could be questionable. Activists accuse the military of intimidating candidates and journalists. Also, numerous extremist candidates who have been previously accused of fomenting violence and barred from running for office are now being allowed to participate in this election.
Joining me now to analyze Pakistan’s upcoming election is Tariq Ali. Tariq is a writer and filmmaker. He has written more than two dozen books on world history and politics, and seven novels. His 1970 book “Uprising in Pakistan: How to Bring Down a Dictatorship” was, I believe, re-released by Verso books. Also, Tariq is an editor of The New Left Review. Thanks for joining us here, Tariq.
TARIQ ALI: Very good to be with you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Tariq, let’s start off with contextualizing this tumultuous situation in Pakistan leading up to the elections.
TARIQ ALI: Well, basically- you know, without mincing words- the Sharif brothers, who have run the country for some years with popular support, they have the largest province in the country, the Punjab, with them, where the PPP, which was the second-largest force in that particular province, has virtually been eliminated. A third party has arisen called the Party of Justice, led by the former cricketer Imran Khan. It’s, the party’s initials spell PTI in English. And Imran Khan is now the principal challenger to the Sharif brothers.
But as you said in your introduction, the feeling, the perception in Pakistan, is that this election has already been rigged structurally by massive pressure on pro-Sharif members of Parliament to split from the party of the Sharif brothers and to stand as independents. And the press has been barred from publicizing many of the things Nawaz Sharif has said. His pro-Sharif demonstrations have been either banned from some of the television networks, or shown in a completely distorted fashion. So there is absolutely no doubt that the military-political complex that governs this country, and has done so for many years, wants the Sharif brothers out.
If they have effectively managed to neutralize the senior Sharif, Nawaz, charges of corruption, probably true. Many, many other charges of corruption for which he wasn’t brought to court are well known. The problem is this: that if this is the main charge against the Sharif brothers, it is a charge that could be leveled against all the other parties. I mean, the former president belonging to the People’s Party, Asif Zardari, was a well-known [trickster] and, you know, a great corrupt politician. The party of Imran Khan, the PTI, there’ve been a number of scandals, financial scandals related to that party. So being corrupt is not a big deal, as far as Pakistani politics are concerned. And of course many people argue, not incorrectly, that the military itself is corrupt. That its last dictator, Pervez Musharraf suddenly became incredibly wealthy. The minute you’re appointed chief of staff of the Pakistan army, it comes with massive land deals, et cetera, et cetera.
So on its own, the charge of corruption doesn’t have the same impact which it would have had, say, 25 or 30 years ago. People know the entire ruling elite is corrupt, there’s very few honest people around. And they vote for a party despite all of that. So if, as the human rights organizations are alleging, this election has already been rigged, then the Sharif brothers will probably lose. The question is the, I think, that the establishment, the military political establishment, would like the situation in Parliament when no one gets a majority. Then they can maneuver from behind the scenes and find some neutral dud who can be made prime minister, and who will do their bidding. So-. And we don’t know what will happen after the election results are declared, either. So we’re waiting for next week before politics in Pakistan moves forward or backwards.
SHARMINI PERIES: So what choice do people have, Tariq? I mean, Nawaz Sharif and gang have had their time at the helm. Things didn’t particularly change that dramatically for the people in Pakistan. And the Justice Movement and the PTI, as you say, is also corrupt. What choice do ordinary people have?
TARIQ ALI: I’m afraid no choice at all. That is the reality, and has been the reality of Pakistani politics now for many years, that corruption is like a cancer that is eaten every political party and every major institution in the country. The only question people ask is if we vote for party X or party Y, will there be buses allowed to come near our village? Will a, will a road be built, will we have access to electricity? Politicians who promise that are given a chance and tried, whatever their party is.
And Nawaz Sharif, and his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, who has run the province of the Punjab, has in some cases delivered on these promises. It’s not that no promise has been fulfilled. On this level they have delivered, which is one reason for their popularity. They may be corrupt, but they do deliver the goods from time to time. And people would rather go with the devil they know than the devil waiting in the wings. It’s as simple as that. There is no sort of huge or great or significant force on the left which is challenging any of these parties.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, as we all know, Nawaz Sharif is in prison. Is he planning to run from prison? Or is his party, if they win, select another head of the party?
TARIQ ALI: No. He’s already said that he’s not interested in running. His younger brother Shehbaz Sharif has been appointed head of the party. He is currently the chief minister in the provincial government of the Punjab. So he’s already exercising power on a provincial level. Were, through some freak chance, the Muslim League to win the elections next week Shehbaz would automatically become prime minister once he gets a seat in the National Assembly. So that would be the state of affairs.
Were no party to come to power, then the president, and behind them the agencies of the intelligence services, both civilian and non-civilian, would come in to play determining who was going to be the next prime minister of the country. And they might pick an independent who’s managed to get elected with or without their help, and appoint him and construct a coalition. The other, of course, big news was that they were back-. There have been reports for several months now that the ISI, the main military intelligence agency, had been backing Imran Khan. But there’s no confirmation of this. I mean, there’s a new book out on Imran by his former wife, who he divorced, which tells stories to make your hair stand on end, both of political corruption and of, well, you know, religious malfeasance, and sexual corruption. So if this book is circulating like hotcakes, whether the military will want to take a risk now with him is an open question.
SHARMINI PERIES: Tariq, you mentioned the role that the military is playing in this election, and of course historically it’s had a grip on political power in Pakistan. Explain their role, and tell us a little bit more about the grip they have on who rules Pakistan.
TARIQ ALI: Well, look, ever since the country was founded, and after the first military coup in 1958, the army has played a huge role in Pakistani politics, whether officially, whether in de facto or [de jure]. You know, they have run the country even during periods of civilian rule. Nothing can happen, nothing fundamental can happen, without their approval. Especially in the realm of foreign policy, where they’re critically important. And one reason they dislike Nawaz Sharif is they think that he’s been trying to escape their stranglehold in relation to India, in particular, and trying to do deals with the Indian leadership.
Now, so that is not something new. And that, by the way, is not just Pakistan where it happens in an extreme way. I mean, the National Security Council of the United States has always had senior figures from the military sitting there. And recently, even in Britain, which preserves [inaudible] these questions and tries to, you know, conceal it. The serving commander in chief of the British Army appeared on British television to say that were Jeremy Corbyn to be elected prime minister there would be unrest in the army.
So it’s, you know, in Pakistan it’s done relatively openly. In other countries it’s done quietly and behind the scenes. But the military, being the spinal cord of most of these states, is a major player. And as politicians continue to fail in different parts of the world, the military gets more power. And in Pakistan this is, we’ve seen it many a time and we’re seeing it now.
SHARMINI PERIES: Tariq, recently President Trump cut military aid to Pakistan because he said that the government of Pakistan is not doing enough to combat the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And, of course, in the border region. But what effect is this having on the grip that the military has on Pakistan?
TARIQ ALI: Nothing so far. I mean, basically, the allegations that they’ve done nothing is wrong. When you talk to the Pashtun population in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they see, they’ve been displaced; internally displaced refugees. That’s how they refer to that. Wide areas of Pashtuns have been cleared out, and they’re living in camps, in bad conditions. So they feel very bitter about this, because of course not all of them, in fact not even a majority of them, are supporters of the Taliban, or some of the groups which the ISI has backed in the past. And they now feel that they are being made the victims.
And of course the, you know, the Pakistan army defends the interests of the Pakistani state, just like the Americans doing in their own role. So they haven’t given up on Afghanistan yet. They have close links with important factions in the Taliban and other groups. So it was slightly unreal to expect the Pakistani state to give up on its only victory ever in the region, which was the [crime] of the Taliban helped by Pakistan. They’re not going to give up on that any more than that any U.S. president would give up on what they regard as crucial American interests. And so cutting off aid is not going to change too much. Pakistan has good and close relations with the Chinese economically, and politically, too. And so the Chinese will probably fill the vacuum whenever things get tough.
SHARMINI PERIES: Tariq, in your TeleSur English program The World Today, you recently reported on a new political movement in Pakistan in the Pashtun region, known as Pashtun Tahafuz movement, or the PTM. Tell us a little bit more about who they are and, and the significance of this group.
TARIQ ALI: A [non-violent movement], they specify that very clearly, created to help the Pashtun, ordinary Pashtun people, against the victimisation they suffer from either U.S. drone attacks or by their own government, which is trying to show that it’s doing something in order to get more money, but targets people who are usually innocent of those charges. And the Pashtuns now have huge conurbations, refugees living in Karachi, Lahore, et cetera.
So it’s, it’s a growing community, and they’ve formed this movement to defend themselves politically, not by arms. And have been, you know, some of their leaders have been arrested. Other activists have been killed. But they see, it seems to be the best thing that’s happened in Pakistan for a long time. Of course, they are being denounced as being anti-Pakistan and nonsense like that, which they are not. They simply want to protect their own people.
SHARMINI PERIES: Tariq Ali, always a pleasure to speak with you.
TARIQ ALI: Good to talk to you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.