It would be interesting to the historian to know exactly when Professor Allama Dr Tahirul Qadri (to give him some, but not all, of his titles) realised that electoral reform is difficult. And what makes it difficult is the fact that it is possible only when one is able to amend the laws.

The whole project of electoral reform is only possible if there are elections.

Under military rule, for example, there was not so much concern about the exact shape of democracy, even among those calling the loudest for its restoration. It is usually those who cannot be in a lawmaking position under the existing system, who call loudest for reform.

To hear Dr Qadri, or Imran Khan, one would form the impression that vantage points easily? Or will they defend the system that allows them to be elected? Especially when that defence involves doing nothing.

To take just one example, no one supports proportional representation, except perhaps the Jamaat-i-Islami, because the British Raj introduced the first-past-the-post system in imitation of its own. If the Jamaat ever got large enough a majority to push through proportional representation, it would only be by mastering the present system. That is sufficiently large a task to make it wary of changing over to a new system.

Thus, it must be realised that reforms, even the relatively minor tinkering with the system that Dr Qadri wants, would need the beneficiaries of the current system to pass them. Why should they?

The voter just has to go and vote, but the candidate must not only campaign, but also be ready for a tidal wave of election-day problems, most of which demand money, which he must spend, and which the party is not going to put up. Much of this money is spent under the table, and is not mentioned in the return of expenses submitted by each candidate to the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Elections are fought by veterans precisely because they have the machines needed to do so. Especially in India (and that too in some states), but wherever elections are contested, criminals have got into the action, and exchange their hard work at election time for protection afterwards. Most post-election corruption by legislators has to do with this need to fund elections.

Those who realise that controlling all kinds of legislation means protecting interests in what is illegal, simply by making it legal, find their way into the assemblies.  An example in Pakistan is the immunity of agricultural income from income tax.

Since the legislatures approve taxation laws, agriculturists have a vested interest in ensuring that this exemption remains. Legislators from rural areas claim this exemption, and will protect it at all costs, even if it means fighting elections. Even if it is from the platform of a reform party, as the PPP was in 1970, and the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) is today.

It is worth noting that Dr Qadri and PTI chief Imran Khan both learnt about the Western political system during stays abroad. They would like to see it replicated here. Well, not exactly that system, but their conceptions of it, which show every sign of following the propaganda made for it, which is that it is fair and representative.

It is actually as money-driven, and attracts the same sort of people, as in Pakistan. Their only real superiority is that they have learned to hide their selfishness better, and have made some changes to their lifestyle, such as not using as much protocol.

This helps explain why both Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan want changes to the system, not a change of system. However, the method that Dr Qadri has adopted, and which Imran has announced he may emulate, has laid them open to charges of not following the very democratic principles they espouse.

After all, in which Western country, or even any other democracy in the world, has engaged in electoral reform after a demand by the masses?

Dr Qadri, after all, does not represent even one constituency, and has been advised to get elected, then engage in reform. However, if he could win enough seats to legislate, why would he engage in reform? Past history shows that this would only happen if he was afraid of losing the next election.

This might be the reason that military regimes in Pakistan have not only advocated reform, but have carried it out. Though the impetus has been from politicians, the fact is that military regimes introduced the presidential system, and brought back the parliamentary.

This electoral reform theme has also been a standard excuse for military takeovers, and is perhaps why Dr Qadri is accused to acting as a cat’s paw. This ignores two factors. First, that the political class is egregious. Second, that there is a popular response, only limited by Dr Qadri’s own credibility. This credibility has been made more suspect by timing.

The long march coincided with two major events. The first was the imposition of Governor’s Rule on Balochistan, following the refusal of the heirs to bury the victims of the Alamdar Road blasts. That refusal was an expression of the anxiety of the Hazara community at being targeted for sectarian reasons.

Then was the Supreme Court’s order for the arrest of Raja Pervaiz, for actions when he was Water and Power Minister. The second was hailed by Dr Qadri as a victory, and showed the type of person thrown up by the system, and the priority of ministers under it.

Once again, it appeared as if Dr Qadri was building hope in the present system, by holding out the hope of reform. It may be that, in periods of military rule, too much hope is invested in democracy because its proponents over-promise, portraying it as the panacea to all ills. However, at present, with the result that, when it leads to poor governance, popular loyalty to it becomes doubtful.

Even the joint declaration by the opposition parties in Lahore on Wednesday, was not just about reiterating support for the Election Commission, but a statement of support for democracy. This becomes significant if one assumes that there is a third alternative to democracy and to military rule, the binary which it is assumed that Dr Qadri is working around.

That alternative, Islam, would probably win support among the people, if they were not convinced, as they are, that the Islamic system is to be obtained through democratic elections. Because of this conviction, Islam is seen as just one of several systems, competing under democracy, than a rival to democracy itself. Indeed, it should be noted that Dr Qadri is an Islamic scholar, who would like to use the democratic system.

Is it worth exploring how the long march will affect the coming elections? It should also be seen how far the money spent on the whole exercise since Dr Qadri’s return originated at home.

Also, Dr Qadri should not rely on the MQM chief’s rather fanciful explanation for his British nationality to justify his own Canadian citizenship. His freedom to take up Canadian citizenship notwithstanding, his intervention in Pakistani politics at this juncture, when India has begun breathing down Pakistan’s neck over the LoC, only serves to distract the entire nation from a very real threat that is emerging?

It is, perhaps. a genuine coincidence that a citizen of a country bordering the USA (and perhaps its closest ally) should come back to Pakistan just ahead of a general election.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of TheNation. Email: maniazi@nation.com.pk