Whatever the outcome of the standoff between the Nawaz Sharif government and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and cleric Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek, democracy is unlikely to be the winner. The protests have turned violent and mobs have stormed the offices of Geo TV and Pakistan TV. The channels are back on air but only after the army intervened. The government, pushed into a corner amid rumours that the army had asked Sharif to resign, has booked Khan and Qadri on terror charges. The emerging scenario bodes ill for Pakistan’s fragile democracy, which, for the first time, had seen a transfer of power from one elected government to another. Sharif’s government, which had promised peace and prosperity through trade, now appears unstable and its authority stands diminished.
Sharif’s PML-N had won a large majority in a relatively free and fair election. But Khan, whose party finished second by vote share, rejected the verdict and has been demanding Sharif’s resignation. He has made common cause with Qadri, who is campaigning against corruption, to force the government out with street mobilisations. A democratically elected government must be allowed to complete its term unless it loses its majority in parliament or violates constitutional provisions. Neither has happened in Pakistan.
Ironically, Khan’s mobilisation in the name of democratic rights is hurting Pakistan’s precarious democracy. His preference for mobs over parliament to champion his causes and complaints has undermined institutions. And targeting the media, which has braved dictators and Islamic fundamentalists to uphold liberal democracy, is simply unacceptable. Khan and his supporters must resist further brinkmanship if they believe in a democratic Pakistan. He can certainly criticise the Sharif government’s failures — there are too many, from corruption to unemployment — but he must respect the verdict and desist from working non-democratic channels and players to undermine an elected government. Mobocracy may help to corner the party in office in the short term but it will harm the democratic cause in the long run. The loss will be Pakistan’s, not Sharif’s alone.