On 15th March 2009, the PPP government in Islamabad braced for a showdown with the opposition groups, spearheaded by PML-N leader Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. To forestall the opposition’s long march towards Islamabad, the government blocked the main roads with containers, cracking down on opposition workers, and forcing many prominent leaders to hide.
Setting out from Lahore, huge crowds joined the PML-N’s supremo, heading to Islamabad. Half way through, Mr. Zardari balked, giving into the opposition’s demands. Mian Nawaz Sharif returned to Lahore triumphantly, his supporters declaring the long march a turning point in the country’s history.
PMLN, like all other political parties, have used agitational politics in the past, to promote it’s political agenda. It is surprising, that today the same party is declaring protests, sit-ins and rallies as a danger to democracy, using a heavy handed response to suppress dissent and opposition.
The right to protest springing from the freedom of congregation and speech, is an important civil liberty, and it’s not the agitation that threatens democracy but intolerance towards dissent. Historically and the world over, democratic political systems are characterized by noise and clamour, as different societal sections try to influence and shape the political system. Silence, excessive order and oppression are hallmarks of tyranny.
In a democratic system, elections are considered a proper mechanism through which the electorate articulates it’s demands and holds its leaders accountable. However, even in most democratic cultures, power is often aligned to benefit some groups at the expense of others.
When some groups feel marginalized, sensing that the political system is too skewed in favour of dominant groups, they adopt extra-parliamentary ways to coax or coerce the government. The biggest political, economic and social changes in modern history were the outcome of successful protest movements.
Political systems respond to protests in different ways depending upon their maturity and the culture of the polity. In more civilized commonwealths, the protests, even if they fail to influence the political system, at least highlight the issue, creating incentives and costs for power holders.
Consider the example of Britain’s participation in the Iraq war in 2003. The popular British sentiment was against the war, but the Labour government dragged the country into the conflict, triggering country wide anti-war protests and ultimately claiming the political fortune of the Labour party and its leadership. No one in Britain accused the demonstrators of derailing democracy or being part of a foreign conspiracy.
In the backdrop of the American financial crisis, myriad groups converged onto Wall Street in 2011, in what is known as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Though the movement didn’t beget results, none blamed the protesters for being undemocratic or unconstitutional.
In Turkey, lies a model of development for the leadership of the PML N - during its ten or so years of rule; the AKP’s government faced numerous opposition protests, but not once did the government seal entire provinces, shut down fuel stations or carry out mass arrests.
In Thailand, after the ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra, sit-ins and protests by red shirts and yellow shirts became the norm. Though the political crisis ended up in a coup, even during the worst days, when protesters occupied Bangkok’s airports, the government didn’t used containers to frustrate the opposition’s mobility.
Our current political crisis germinated from the electoral controversies surrounding the 2013 parliamentary elections, allegedly marred by rigging. The PTI’s call for electoral reform merits attention. Unfortunately for the government, the PTI’s demands were water off a duck’s back, pushing the PTI to take it’s demands to the streets.
Two erroneous arguments are being presented against the opposition’s agitation. The first states that agitation begets violence and economic loss, and by protesting, the opposition is creating a political crisis which might act as a prelude for a military take over.
It has been observed that usually it is not the protesters who initiate the violence. The current cycle of violence is provoked by the provincial government, and harsher measures will elicit a violent response, as Shakespeare said, “It will have blood; they say blood will have blood.”
Secondly, if we believe that clamping down on protests and agitation is the price that we must pay for preserving democracy, then such a democracy is not worth preserving. Protests and agitation are essential constituents of democracy. To rule out one is to rule out the other. If our government suppresses dissent, then it matters little if we are living in a democracy or dictatorship.

The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist.

adnanfalak@gmail.com

@adnanfsher