Dharnas vs democracy

Published August 25, 2014
The long term consequences of the Azaadi March need to be considered; the pressure tactics have already set the civilian-military relations back by at least 20 years. -Photo by AFP
The long term consequences of the Azaadi March need to be considered; the pressure tactics have already set the civilian-military relations back by at least 20 years. -Photo by AFP

In May 2013, I, along with many other Pakistanis weary of a system steeped in corruption, bribery and dynastic politics supported Imran Khan’s bid to power through the general elections.

I was deeply critical of his stance on the Taliban, the War on Terror and absence of a clear political ideology but nevertheless felt that his financial incorruptibility and integrity would be a welcome change from the clientelist politics of the PPP and PML-N.

I wasn’t naïve enough to think that Imran would win by a clear majority, because his appeal was largely restricted to upwardly mobile urban middle and upper classes, as evidenced by a report by Gallup Pakistan.

It was also highly unlikely that the PPP’s and PML-N’s historic stronghold over Sindh and Punjab respectively, would be destroyed in the course of a single election. This view was confirmed by opinion polls and surveys prior to the elections.

Also read: Open letter to Imran Khan, from a PTI voter

Nevertheless, I hoped that Imran would emerge strong enough to form part of a national coalition.

That didn’t happen.

I was disappointed but not entirely surprised and after making a series of embarrassingly elitist comments regarding the ‘illiterate masses’ I moved on.

That is how democracy works.

In a system of one person one vote, all opinions count equally – even if some of them are loud enough to dominate the public space through dharnas, while others quietly follow old political affiliations. In a democracy we have to be open to the possibility that the politicians we think are ill-suited for leadership may get elected, and we must respect the mandate of the people if democracy is to flourish.

It is the latter aspect of democracy that is, I believe, apparently difficult for many PTI followers to digest, with most translating any critique of Imran Khan’s tactics as support for corrupt veteran politicians.

The situation deteriorated with the PMl-N’s refusal to implement timely electoral reforms, address electoral irregularities, not to mention, the horrifying Model Town massacre that gave an undemocratic opportunist like Tahirul Qadri a place on the negotiation table.

But the Azaadi March and PTI’s single-minded pursuit of Nawaz Sharif’s resignation has lost many people with its convoluted ‘logic’.

The claim that PML-N’s victory was engineered through massive rigging has not been corroborated by independent sources like the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), the EU Elections Observer Mission and the National Democratic Institute.

Undoubtedly, there were irregularities and causes for concern. But electoral law violations do not automatically translate to rigging at the scale needed to manufacture a landslide victory.

There is no ground for demanding a resignation in the absence of any judicial opinions or evidence from non-partisan experts. The PTI is trying to set a dangerous precedent by insisting that elected governments can be declared illegitimate and toppled on the basis of street power.

Another issue that is repeatedly and irrelevantly raised is that of Nawaz Sharif’s political corruption.

Let us be clear that the issue of Nawaz using his political power for illegitimate private gain is separate and distinct from that of alleged electoral rigging.

PTI needs to decide why it wants Sharif to resign

Is it because he does not have the mandate of the people or because he is financially corrupt?

Both allegations should be deliberated and decided by the judiciary and independent sources. Twenty thousand people (or even 500,000 people as claimed by PTI) gathered on the street cannot be the judge, jury and executioner.

Editorial: PTI’s bizarre proposals

A common counter argument to this is the claim that the judiciary, and in fact the entire system, is corrupt and cannot be fixed as long as the old timers are in power. Fine. There might even be some logic behind this argument.

But then you need to stop thumping your chest about democracy.

A more intellectually honest argument would perhaps state that: democracy is ill-suited for a country like Pakistan with its massive illiteracy and systemic corruption and nepotism. Under a democratic system, people will continue to elect seasoned politicians who have no stake in fixing the system. We need an honest leader like Imran Khan to weed out the rampant corruption and build a utopian ‘Naya’ Pakistan.

Ironically, this PTI cult worship centred on a larger-than-life hero expects the latter to act outside the system to repair it, while at the same time preserve democracy.

It is rather like a military dictator dismissing an elected government on charges of corruption with promises to restore democracy when conditions are more ‘suitable’. Aren’t we all familiar with that line of thinking?

You may even support this view and claim that a benevolent dictator is better than a corrupt elected leader. But you have to be honest enough to acknowledge that such a stance cannot be packaged as democracy.

It needs to be decided if the ends, that of having an incorruptible leader, justify the means, that is derailing the democratic process.

And the long term consequences of the Azaadi March need to be considered; the pressure tactics have already set the civilian-military relations back by at least 20 years.

For the first time since ZA Bhutto, the civilian leadership had managed to gain some control over foreign policy. The Azaadi March has effectively wrecked that and put the military back in control.

Even if Imran Khan gets his much desired resignation, a mid-term election and by some incredible stretch of imagination, a clear electoral victory, these pressure tactics will have done irreparable damage to democratic institutions with their in-built mechanism for rooting out corrupt and unpopular leaders in a sustainable and institutionalised manner.

Our problems are too deep rooted to be magically solved by one lone saviour.

Also read: The mask of anarchy

And thanks to the PTI’s recent manoeuvres which have set a dangerous precedent of successfully using street power for political gain, elected leaders for some time to come (including Imran Khan) will be left looking over their shoulders, while remaining deeply subservient to the military establishment.

For many people, that is too high a price to pay.

It is time we acknowledge that while we may admire Imran Khan’s integrity and desire his leadership, but the latter is not possible at the moment through democratic means.



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