Do the ends justify the means? This is the question that is implicitly being asked by the government and the PTI as they prepare to confront each other in Islamabad this week. Amidst an opening salvo of repression by the PML-N, involving the arrest and suppression of PTI leaders, activists, and supporters across Punjab, both sides have made their stances clear. For the PTI, it is imperative that the PML-N and its leadership, particularly Nawaz Sharif, be held accountable for their alleged corruption, with the Panama Leaks serving as a pretext for protest against an unfair, undemocratic political system that might ultimately have to be uprooted and replaced with a new, presumably PTI-led dispensation. The government, for its part, has cast its opponents as opportunistic charlatans engaging in agitation to acquire power at any cost, even if it involves disrupting a fragile democratic process through a forcible and unconstitutional transfer of power that might even involve overt intervention by the military establishment. The choice on offer is stark; support the PTI to bring about a radical transformation of a dysfunctional status quo, or support the PML-N in the name of democracy. There is no middle ground.

The problem with the way in which this choice has been framed is the underlying assumption that both parties can deliver on the promises that serve to legitimate their political actions. While the PML-N might understandably be haunted by the spectre of the 1990s, when it and the PPP engaged in a mutually destructive cycle of confrontation, egged on the by the military establishment, that derailed the democratic process in Pakistan, it would be a stretch to suggest that Nawaz Sharif and his coterie could be held up as shining examples of democracy in action. Over the course of the past three years (eight if you include the PML-N tenure in Punjab), the party has presided over an increasing centralisation of power in its own hands, engaging in a brand of autocratic, debt-fuelled patronage politics that has entrenched its position as the country’s dominant political party. The Prime Minister is not entirely incorrect when he suggests that his government has been able to deliver on some of its promises of ‘development’, but such claims overlook the widening democratic deficit over which it has presided; when it comes to questions of accountability and participatory decision-making, it is clear that the PML-N has done little to strengthen democratic institutions in the country. Most observers would agree that Nawaz Sharif should have been more accommodating of demands to set up a more substantive inquiry in to the revelations emerging from the Panama Leaks, and the heavy-handed approach currently being taken towards restraining PTI supporters is simply reflective of a longer, worrying tendency to stifle dissent. Whatever the failings of the PTI and its approach to politics, it would be a mistake to simply let the PML-N off the hook for its many failings.

However, all of this does not necessarily justify the approach that seems to have been adopted by the PTI, and it is here that the question of means and ends needs to be explored more critically. For years now, Imran Khan and the PTI have posed as agents of change, promising to upend a political order characterized by the domination of corrupt and incompetent leaders motivated by little other than their own enrichment and empowerment. Yet, as an alternative to the status quo, the irony of contemporary Pakistani politics is that Imran Khan simply offers more of the same. Those who have followed the PTI’s trajectory as a major political party would undoubtedly have noticed how it has gone from being an insurgent, if unsuccessful, entity on the margins of political power to one that has come to embody some of the worst qualities of its opponents. Like the PML-N, it is a party that hosts ‘electables’ with chequered political careers, relics from the past whose murky backgrounds and questionable dealings militate against the notion that the PTI could deliver substantive change. Like its adversaries, the PTI is also a party with an extremely centralised process of decision-making, as demonstrated by the rumblings of discontent emerging from its so-called ‘ideological’ wing, as well as the debacle of its intra-party elections. To the extent that the party has stated positions on questions of public policy, there is little to differentiate it from the conservatism of its main political adversaries.

Most damning of all, however, is the clear lack of anything remotely resembling a plan. Even if the PTI’ If there is one thing that seems to define Imran Khan’s political worldview, it is the unshakeable notion that upon assuming power, he would be able to rectify all of Pakistan’s problems through sheer force of will. One consequence of this is that it eliminates the need to actually provide concrete proposals for how reform would actually be undertaken, with rhetoric taking the place of actual policy. More importantly, this kind of messianic narcissism also leads to the belief that the acquisition of power matters more than the process through which it is obtained, and it is precisely this that renders the PTI’s commitment to democracy suspect. When Imran Khan invokes the ‘Third Umpire’, all but welcoming the prospect of military intervention, or when he refuses to repudiate the support of ‘allies’ like the denizens of the Lal Masjid, it becomes clear that democratic niceties mean little to him. Those who defend him might claim that the entire system is rigged, thereby justifying such actions, but would it not be reasonable to ask if such methods inevitably undermine the party’s stated objectives. Hope and change become harder to believe in when the mechanisms through which they will be ostensibly be delivered are designed to prevent that from happening.

The polarisation of political discourse in Pakistan has meant that many who oppose Imran Khan are invariably accused of being sympathetic to the PML-N. That this is not necessarily the case should be self-evident. The PML-N’s use of coercion to prevent people from exercising their democratic right to protest is deplorable (and also poor political strategy), and its intransigence on the Panama Leaks and other questions of accountability must be challenged. However, the manner in which such a challenge is mounted matters. Opposition to the PTI is often borne out of scepticism of its aims and intentions, and it is difficult to endorse a party that does not even pretend to be particularly concerned about strengthening and protecting the democratic process in Pakistan. The PTI should have invested its efforts in building a more robust party organisation, using its position in parliament and its eventual appeal at the ballot box to provide a substantive alternative to the PML-N in 2018. Instead, as was the case before, it has chosen the path of expediency. Such a strategy is doomed to failure; it may or may not succeed in toppling the government, but it certainly does not bode well for democracy in Pakistan.