The charges against the current government are myriad. In addition to the allegations that it came to power on the basis of a rigged election, it stands accused of an inability to deal with the problems that Pakistan currently faces. The country’s electricity crisis remains unresolved, the economy is still anaemic, corruption is rampant, and the traditional networks of patronage politics and elite dominance remain in place. To make matters worse, the government appears to not have a comprehensive vision for tackling these issues, and has thus far displayed a worrying lack of interest in improving governance. As such, in the present juncture, there has been a re-emergence of a narrative that questions the value of continuing with the current democratic dispensation. It is argued that a democracy of this sort is one not worth having, and that it is better to simply start afresh, either with the dissolution of the assemblies and the holding of mid-term elections, or through the direct intervention of the military.

While it is easy to sympathise with the desire for change, especially in a context where successive governments continuously fail to bring about any meaningful, substantive reform, it is important to understand why it is self-defeating to push for a complete and total overhaul of the democratic system. In the past, the incompetence and venality of civilian politicians has invariably served as the justification for military intervention in Pakistan’s politics, both overtly and covertly, and it is clear from the historical record that this has itself been one of the principle factors undermining the development of a more effective, robust, and participatory institutional framework for governance in the country.

This point has been made before, but it bears repeating once more, given recent events in Pakistan. Democracy needs time to mature, and it is both unfair and unrealistic to expect it to deliver results instantaneously. There are several reasons for this; nascent democracies like Pakistan often emerge out of situations of authoritarian rule, and dismantling the structures of oppression and domination that characterise such regimes requires considerable effort and energy. This is perhaps doubly true in cases like Pakistan where an entrenched military establishment continues to exercise tremendous de facto power. The problem is compounded by the presence of a political class, drawn almost exclusively from the propertied elite, who themselves owe much of their power and prestige to the patronage extended to them by successive military governments, and who are more than willing to perpetuate established systems of control in order to strengthen their own positions. Finally, authoritarian rule also inevitably eviscerates democratic institutions, crippling the courts and media, and impeding the development of institutional means through which the government can be held accountable.

Given the tremendous challenges transitional democracies face, it is tempting to suggest that democratization itself may be too difficult a path to pursue, regardless of its merits and long-term potential. In situations where conflict and poverty continue to worsen, some may even suggest that strong non-democratic governments may be preferable to the chaotic unpredictability of democratic ones, at least in the short run. This, however, is a flawed argument, largely because for all its apparent failings, democracy contains within itself the mechanisms through which to overcome these problems given sufficient time.

To appreciate how this works, it is necessary to understand the need to have consecutive, uninterrupted cycles of electoral turnover. Basically, it is reasonable to expect that citizens dissatisfied with the performance of a government can and will use the power of their votes to remove specific parties and individuals from office and replace them with alternatives who offer better policies and programmes for reform. While it will certainly be the case that, at least initially, governments will be elected that will fail to perform well, the accountability generated through voting will eventually force parties in power, and those aspiring to come to power, to compete for electoral support by supplying better governance. Repeated cycles of electoral competition in which democracy is the only system on offer, will lead voters to demand more from their representatives, and will also compel the latter to deliver on the promises they make while campaigning.

The pressures unleashed by electoral competition will have other spillover effects. For example, the legislature will become a more effective means through which to enact reforms, with parties in power making use of their mandate to push for laws policies in line with their campaign promises. Given the greater costs democratic governments bear when engaging in repression, as demonstrated in Islamabad this past week, it is also likely that democratic governments will be less able or likely to suppress the media and the courts, allowing them to mature and develop into more powerful forces of accountability. Citizens themselves will have the space and the means to have their voices heard, and will be better able to articulate dissent and opposition.

Essentially, giving democracy time allows for its inbuilt systems of accountability to develop. Over time, it is this that will force parties to reform, weed out the corrupt and the inefficient, and allow for government to become more responsive and inclusive. However, whenever democracy is interrupted, this slow and incremental process of reform is pushed back to square one, especially when such interruptions are accompanied by the same kinds of authoritarian governance and opportunistic dealmaking that have undermined democracy in the past.

As such, while the PTI’s demands for electoral reform were and are legitimate and necessary, toppling the government to pursue them is likely to create more problems than it will solve. It makes far more sense for it and other parties to make use of their position as stakeholders within the system to push for change. As I have said before in this space, there is a time and place for revolution, but only if it is accompanied by a truly democratic and radical vision of society. This is something that the marchers in Islamabad lack. Democracy is often messy, and even the best democracies are plagued by issues of inequality and graft, but it still holds the promise of a better future than any experiment with authoritarian rule or civilian governments backed by the military. The PML-N and other mainstream parties are far from ideal but they will only be held to account and forced to change by the maturation of the democratic system. At present, this is what represents the best option for Pakistan.

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

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk