WAS it political provocation, an implicit threat or a statement of fact? Or perhaps it was a bit of all three? The build-up to the PTI’s promised lockdown of Islamabad on Nov 2 has already taken an unpredictable turn with Imran Khan’s warning that if a so-called third force were to intervene in the days ahead and democracy derailed, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself would be responsible. Mr Khan is no stranger to incendiary political rhetoric and has frequently flirted with the bounds of democratic discourse. This paper has consistently maintained that not only does the PTI have a democratic right to protest, but that its position as the third-largest party in parliament and second-largest vote-getter in the last general election gives it an important place in the political order in the country. As such, the dismissive attitude of the PML-N government towards the fair and just PTI demand that the revelations in the Panama Papers be thoroughly and transparently investigated is deeply lamentable.
Nevertheless, the more mature and democratic course for Imran Khan to have taken would have been to maintain that the only solution is for more democracy, not less; for democratic institution-building, not the dismantling of the democratic order itself. After all, the current demands of the PTI, as far as the Panama Papers issue is concerned, are explicitly and avowedly about introducing a cleaner, more transparent and responsive system of government. What precisely is the role of the military that Mr Khan sees in the Pakistani polity? A fair historical account of Pakistan’s weak institutions and low levels of democracy would suggest that much as the politicians have rebuffed opportunities to strengthen the democratic order, the fundamental weaknesses of the system are rooted in unconstitutional interventions in the democratic system. In a moment of heightened civil-military tensions, Mr Khan should think twice — and then twice again — before blithely imperilling the democratic order. A cleaner democracy this country surely needs, but the system must remain democratic if it is ever to be cleansed of corruption.
Perhaps given the crucial moment in this country’s history it is worth reiterating what precisely is at stake. The current democratic transition, begun in 2008 and on the verge of delivering a second full-term government and a second successful peaceful transition of power between parliaments, is still flawed in many ways and needs a great deal of improvement. The opposition of Imran Khan and PTI could be part of the necessary pressure to improve the government, governance and quality of public life. But let there be no misunderstanding: this democracy belongs to the people, is rooted in the Constitution and flows from the wishes of the founding father of this great nation. It is the only legitimate system and it is the only system worth protecting. Imran Khan should pay heed to being on the right side of history.
Published in Dawn October 25th, 2016