As the sit-ins in Islamabad linger on, the debate around them is fast changing from the abuse of law by the state institutions (i.e. Model Town Tragedy) and lack of access to justice (non-redress of election rigging complaints).

The stance of the proponents of these sit-ins has also changed accordingly over last one month. More than the resignations, the debate is now on the legitimacy of the parliament, the democratic mandate and worse, the state’s authority under the proclaimed ‘faulty’ mandate. Not every argument that the protesters give is invalid. Not everything that the supporters of the democratic system are saying is true either.

Looking at the democratic dispensation in Pakistan in brief and controlled intervals since 1990s, it is too much to expect the pristine essence of democracy to come out of the entire political lot groomed under, or in partnership with, or in compromise with, the military establishment. Looking at the parliament’s consensus, on the other hand, it appears that the politicians have decided to keep the structural aspect of the democratic system with little concern, at the moment, to the essence of this system.

The contours, in this sense, have been embraced as sacred without heeding the essentials and the substance of the system. In the peculiar context of Pakistan’s democratic history, it might be a valid concern to stick together to keep the system going with parallel efforts to improve the kernel of it. While the save-the-system euphoria is predominantly visible, the bring-the-essence drive is strikingly absent from those defending and those inside the system.

In retrospect, the Athenian structure of democracy when it took the shape of modern western democracy suddenly became dogmatic. And dogma, as we know, doesn’t allow much imagination, innovation and improvisation. Having no definite template, the democratic systems have, however, taken shape over the decades from culture to culture and state to state.

This is where the differences of Westminster and Jeffersonian systems come from. And this is where we see the fine distinctions between different Westminster style democracies from Australia to India to Pakistan. On this rather wide canvas of democracy, this seems to be a difficult time on democracy around the world.

In having a blatant show of flaws in the system and disillusionment of masses with politics, Pakistan is not alone. Even the comparatively recent moments of democratic triumph in Egypt for example, have ended in despair for the largely liberal populace in that country after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak amid mass protests. Mr Morsi, not unlike Pakistan’s political elite, took his mandate to be unbridled power to rule as opposed to govern with people’s ownership of the decisions.

Building and strengthening democratic institutions is a long and continued work in progress as opposed to a one-off act as the result of elections. For it to happen, a people have to have a deep-rooted democratic culture and general adherence to basic democratic values. Paraphrasing American neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama, the roots of democracy cant flourish in rocky ground.

In a system where feudal lords owning big swathes of land are made to represent the farmers, and big industrialists are expected to author laws and policies to protect the rights of the industrial workers, the ground for democracy will remain as rocky. The system where mafia heads of sugar owning industry are put in charge of overseeing the sugar crisis, where conflict-of-interest principle is put on permanent back burner to allow the political elite multiply its wealth while the powerless classes suffer perpetual disadvantage, the system might keep its silhouettes but would never deliver what a democracy is meant to deliver.

Senior journalist Syed Talat Hussain captures it best; “democracy is high on form, very low on substance. It is assumed that because you have a mandate, you don’t have to do anything else, like for instance, govern.” While politician turned political analyst Mr Fawad Chaudhry argues that because of a dangerously ignored conflict-of-interest principle, those in powerful positions have monopolized the industry, the banks and now the power sector in violation of all values and principles of democracy. Although he conveniently ignores who monopolizes real estate with impunity in this country, Mr Chaudhry makes a very powerful point about non-functional democracy even if the parliamentary parties are able to stand together in strong defense of it.

Mr Jarrar Shah, a fellow columnist, emphasizes the lack of will among the political elite to devolve the governing authority to the lowest levels of governance. The local governments as basic units of democratic system have been historically resisted by the civilian political regimes. Six years of democracy, five from the last parliamentary tenure and one from the current, could not establish local governments, despite the introduction of massive constitutional reforms in 2010 that devolved many governing functions from federation to provinces. The devolution was locked at the provincial level.

Patronage politics, populist decision-making, political partisanship infused deeply into practically every arm of the state and elite capture of democratic institutions among others, have rendered Pakistan’s democratic system completely flawed and with little popular support. The populist politics on key economic and legislative measures might have won politicians some brownie points for their shortsighted election campaigns they normally are lethal to people’s long-term interests. Populism makes politics fall in the trap of dangerous and divisive faith-based ideological hubris. Going for big-ticket items to show off your ‘performance’ as opposed to long-term investments. Metro-bus projects and schemes like doling out laptops for example, have been popular among political regimes rather than investing in better governance, outreach and accessibility of public transport or rationalizing the education spending and ensuring the quality and quantity of public sector educational institutions.

Lastly, the internet-equipped youth bulge of Pakistan that prefers the T20 cricket match to a five-day test match now has a DJ-Butt-style of pick-n-choose music. The apparently anachronistic parliamentary democracy with same good old faces and practices is making them all the more impatient to see the change. Their disdain for the politicians while cheering a political figure of their liking and cynicism against the government while depending on it for their rights – the right to protest as the most popular one these days – demonstrate interesting contradictions of contemporary narrative. As contradictory as is the current call for revolution from a (mostly) non-elected elite classes!

This democratic dysfunction calls for a serious rethinking and self-appraisal from the forces uniting inside the parliament in the name of ‘saving the system’. Putting too much attention on holding the elections but little on the fundamental values and substance of democracy, unbridled power of the state while not ensuring rights of the citizens and increasingly taking democracy as the tyranny of majority has landed us where we are. Democracy must not be put on back foot by its own defenders.

n    The writer is an Islamabad based freelance columnist.