On the 8th of August, Lahore’s Model Town was once again the scene of violent clashes between the police and activists from Tahir-ul-Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek. While there was fortunately no loss of life, many police personnel and PAT workers were injured, and life in Lahore was brought to a virtual standstill as the government moved to block roads, shut down petrol pumps across the city, and institute more stringent security measures ostensibly aimed at preventing the violence from spreading. The Government and Tahir-ul-Qadri also exchanged warnings and ultimatums; Qadri made distasteful comparisons to the situation in Gaza while urging his followers to topple the government, and the government responded by threatening to arrest Qadri and his supporters after accusing them of stockpiling weapons to destabilize Punjab as part of a broader conspiracy.
It should be obvious to all but the most ardent PAT sympathizers, that Qadri’s promise of revolution is an illusory one. A protégé of dictators who has always been willing to make deals with the most anti-democratic forces in Pakistan, Qadri has made no effort to conceal his desire to overthrow the PML-N government and replace it with a new ‘system’, the contours of which remain vague and undefined save for the certainty that it will lack any semblance of democratic legitimacy. While it could certainly be argued that there is a time and place for revolutionary struggles against the state, particularly when they enjoy mass support and espouse truly radical and progressive ideas, Qadri’s blend of egoistic narcissism and reactionary politics would be nothing short of a disaster for Pakistan, undoing even the little progress that has been made in strengthening the country’s democratic institutions.
Amidst Qadri’s calls for revolution and whispers that he enjoys the support of the military establishment, it is important to not overstate the threat that he actually poses to the PML-N government. Given that Canada’s least useful export to Pakistan tried and failed to pull off this exact same trick with the PPP government prior to the May 2013 elections, it is reasonable to wonder why the PML-N has chosen to respond to the PAT’s shenanigans in such a heavy-handed fashion. Here, a number of factors come into play. Given his experiences during his previous terms in power, Nawaz Sharif remains wary of attempts to bring a premature end to his tenure as Prime Minister. In a context where the PML-N continues to lock horns with the military establishment over the Musharraf treason case, the government’s paranoia may not be entirely unjustified. The PML-N’s use of force against the PAT can also potentially be attributed to the more authoritarian style of governance that has always been employed by the Sharifs; like Turkey’s Erdogan, for whom he has expressed his admiration on many occasions, it is clear that Nawaz Sharif has little tolerance for even the smallest signs of resistance or opposition. As Punjab’s nurses, doctors, students, and labourers will testify, the PML-N believes that the best way to deal with protestors is to beat them into submission.
However, in addition to all of this, it is important to recognize that the PML-N’s jitters have also been prompted by the PTI’s intended march on Islamabad on the 14th of August. Using allegations of electoral rigging as a rallying cry, Imran Khan has threatened to descend on the capital city with a million supporters who will remain there until the PTI’s demands are met. While the exact nature of these demands is difficult to ascertain, given how they continue to vacillate between empty platitudes about democracy and full-blown calls to mid-term polls, the PML-N appears to be convinced that the PTI, like the PAT, represents an existential threat to the continued existence of the government.
Much has already been said and written about the wisdom of Imran Khan’s chosen course of action. Using this march to topple the PML-N government, unlikely as that might be, would set an unhealthy precedent, plunging Pakistan back into the dysfunctional ‘democratic’ politics of the 1990s, in which rival parties backed by the military establishment competed with each other to derail the democratic process. Even if this were not a consideration for the PTI, any mid-term polls that might be held absent any broader, substantive reform would do little to address the structural problems that Imran Khan feels characterize the current electoral system. It would simply be more of the same, a fact reinforced by the enthusiastic support extended to both the PTI and the PAT by the likes of the APML and the PML-Q.
All of the sound and fury that is being generated by the PML-N and its adversaries obscures that fact that fundamentally, there is a pressing need for reform in Pakistan’s electoral system. Focusing on mid-term polls and resignations detracts from a far more necessary and meaningful conversation about the concrete changes that need to be made to strengthen democracy in Pakistan. While it is certainly the case that the results of the 2013 elections were not unexpected, and that the elections were free and fair by Pakistan’s standards, it is likely that there was some rigging and fraud across the country. After all, even though the vast majority of election petitions that have been decided by election tribunals have found no major evidence of misconduct, at least a dozen legislators (three of whom, ironically enough, belonged to the PTI) have been disqualified. Where there is credible reason to believe the elections were not conducted properly, it is absolutely essential that these claims be investigated.
More importantly, however, the PTI and those that share its concerns about electoral malpractice have failed to focus on the institutional mechanisms through which electoral results are manufactured in Pakistan. For example, the First-Past-the-Post voting system is designed to discriminate against smaller parties, and helps to explain why the PTI won five times less seats than the PML-N despite garnering almost half as many votes nationwide. If Pakistan were to implement a system of proportional representation, electoral outcomes would not be so skewed in favour of a single entrenched party. Similarly, the rural vote remains over-represented in Pakistan, a function of the fact that electoral constituencies are still drawn up (and gerrymandered) on the basis of a census conducted almost two decades ago. A new population census would radically redraw Pakistan’s electoral geography, and give greater weight to an urban vote that is less likely to back the traditional landed politicians at the heart of Pakistan’s political parties. Finally, Local Government polls and changes to the system of MNA and MPA development funding would also go a long way towards facilitating the entry of new parties and politicians, thereby impeding the ability of entrenched parties like the PML-N to make use of the bureaucracy, police, and patronage to hold on to power.
As a party in government, the PTI has the means through which it can push for such reforms. Particularly in KPK, the PTI could start to implement some of the promises it made in its manifesto, and which it continues to invoke when attacking the PML-N. Doing so would allow the party to demonstrate its commitment to change, its capacity to implement policy, and would also signal that it is a party worth supporting in 2018. Instead, Imran Khan has chosen to pursue a confrontational path that will do little to achieve these outcomes. In its quest for power at any cost, the PTI is once again missing the trees for the wood.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk