Independence day is supposed to be an occasion for taking stock. However, Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf are not only making the country focus on only one aspect of national performance, but are trying to perpetrate a crisis that will bring down the government.

At a very basic level, Imran may well be right. After all, one of the features of the state is democracy, and Independence Day is a good occasion to review this feature. This is what Imran is challenging; the legality of this democracy. If one concedes the need for electoral reform, then the further step he has taken makes sense: the present government has come to office through a tainted election, and thus cannot be said to represent the will of the people.

However, Imran’s objections came a year too late and after having spent time in opposition at the national level, and in all provinces except Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Democracy is by no means a perfect system, but it is the least bad of all systems. One of the requirements a democracy must fulfill is that it produces a government. That implies accepting election results, even if they are tainted. It should not be forgotten that ‘free and fair’ elections go back to British elections, and refers to the fact that elections were neither free nor fair. Election results were determined by the King, in his favour, and were thus unfair, and the pressure put on the voters did not allow them a free choice.

Imran is leading this protest to obtain recounts in four constituencies, but now he is demanding a recount for the entire election. He is coming up against the problem faced by any outsider attempting to reform any system, but especially an electoral system: how to remain an outsider. It is instructive that the PTI MNAs have handed Imran letters of resignation, the KP MPAs have not. One reason is that leaving the opposition is easier than leaving government. It must also be noted that the PTI is like other parties in leaving campaign finance to be arranged by the candidates. Because of this, and because campaigns demand machines, tickets are awarded to ticket applicants with money and machines. In short, they are awarded to hereditary politicians, the very winning horses courted by traditional parties. As a matter of fact, these are the very sort of people who Imran needed (and got in the last election) to give him credibility.

The problem is not making such people resign. The problem is losing. Winning horses may prefer losing an election, and only are active in opposition in the hope of a Cabinet slot. That means they must belong to the winning party. They do not mind turning coat.

This explains why these politicians have sided with military dictators. Military dictators are also supposed to have developed the means of determining election results. They are not supposed to be able to make an unknown candidate win. One reason is that this would not be credible; the second is that the machinery does not exist. However, the military, or rather the intelligence agencies, are credited with being able to deliver a seat to a candidate who can gather votes on his own. It is perhaps Imran’s misfortune that his opponents have labeled him one of these politicians. His association with Pervez Musharraf has made political parties wary of him, while his association with other Musharraf allies, such as the PML(Q) and Dr Tahirul Qadri’s PAT, has raised the fear of yet another military takeover.

On the face of it, there is no reason for Martial Law, apart from a new generation taking over in the Army, which has not had the opportunity to benefit from military rule. Also, the timing would seem wrong, for the Army is busy with Operation Zarb-i-Azb. It has been called out in major cities in support of the civil power, because of the expected blow-back from the ongoing operation. Indeed, this is the reason being given for it being stationed now in Islamabad, not the PTI rally. While the PTI denies being driven by the Army, it also claims to support the Army strongly. Therefore, the troops in Islamabad would probably not like to fire on a PTI rally. This is the best guarantee of peace in Islamabad on Independence Day, as the PTI would like to avoid confrontation, something it might have risked with the police.

Yet the disquiet at the performance of the government is there. It has its roots within the last election campaign, when the PML(N) came back to office on a platform of generalized reform. In short, its platform was that it was not the PPP. The PTI, on the other hand, based its appeal on being a replacement. The election, especially in the Punjab, and to an extent in KP, was three-way, and the result was predictable. The PML(N) won big. The PPP has always claimed that it could not lose, and the PTI makes the same claim. The corollary is that losses have to be explained away, by rigging.

That is why the PTI has had to turn on other institutions, primarily the judiciary. It cannot be ignored that the judiciary under Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry had distanced itself from the military, and thus ended the unspoken assumption, proven true by every Martial Law so far, that military takeovers would inevitably be supported by the judiciary. The military has very properly voiced no opposition, but Imran Khan has gone for Chaudhry, particularly his conduct during the elections.

The disquiet is on top of a deeper malaise. The system has failed to solve the people’s problems. The reaction, that the system is at fault, is rebutted by the PTI, which claims the system is not being implemented. The PML(N) and the PPP are left to claim that the system is working.

The government will keep alive the idea of talks because it has to and the PTI will hold the rally because it too has to. Its demand has moved from electoral reform to the removal of the government. The PML(N) might accept electoral reform though it would prefer not to, as it has mastered the existing electoral system sufficiently to keep on winning elections. However, it will not agree to removal from office. Mian Nawaz may be Prime Minister for the third time, but he did not serve out his previous two terms.

Perhaps the basic problem that cannot be overcome, no matter how fair the system, is that contesting elections needs money and a machine. Even a fair election will mean that the same people whom Imran decries so much (unless they have joined the PTI) will win.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.