The 2013 elections were hailed as historic for they had marked the first ever transition from one democratically elected civilian government to another; back then, it seemed that after more than six decades of political turmoil, Pakistan was finally maturing into a stable democracy. Hardly a year has passed, but the optimism in our polity seems to be dying down – except perhaps amongst the few thousand mesmerized protesters dancing to the tune in D-Chowk. Allegations of rigging have made the 2013 elections controversial, reminding us of the 1977 elections which brought Mr. Bhutto to power for the second time. Those elections were also marred by allegations of rigging, prompting opposition parties to demand Mr. Bhutto’s resignation and re-election. The country was gripped by mass agitation, and while civilian politicians were quarrelling with each other, the military had intervened.

Since its inception, there have been only two main centers of power in the country, with the reins being passed from one to another in an unending power struggle: the military and the civil bureaucracy on one hand and the popularly elected legislatures on the other. These power centers trace their origins back to the days of the Empire which conquered and ruled India primarily through a powerful army and well-organized civil bureaucracy respectively. Democratic institutions were introduced much later and only reluctantly, to appease the growing demands of the colonized ‘natives’ who wished to be included in the governance of their country. Till the last days of the Empire, these democratic institutions enjoyed limited powers in comparison to the military and civil bureaucracy, through which the ‘gora sahibs’ maintained their firm grip over the affairs of the colony.

The movement for independence from the British Empire was essentially spurred by the aspirations of the people of India to govern their country themselves and for their own benefit. We sometimes forget that the birth of Pakistan was a by-product of the Indian Independence Movement; without an independent India, there would have been no Pakistan. The creation of Pakistan thus, was not only about creating a separate homeland for the Muslims of India, but also about creating a democratic state where power rested with the people rather than the traditionally powerful institutions of the Empire.

Power should have shifted from the army and civil bureaucracy to popularly elected legislatures through adoption of a new constitution, but alas that was not to be. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in 1954 and the abrogation of the 1956 Constitution in 1958 - acts perpetrated by civil or military bureaucrats – ensured that power remained with the military-civil bureaucratic complex. More than five decades, three military coups, and two Constitutions later, the same power struggle continues.

After staging four coups, dismissing several democratically elected civilian governments, and ruling the country for half of its existence by means of martial law and other novel experimentations, the military seems to have realized the utter futility of direct interventions. Yet, the gentlemen seem unwilling to cede power to the civilian democrats who, on the other hand, fail to unite and act responsibly and maturely enough so as to justify the consolidation of power in their own hands. Exploiting these weaknesses of the civilian democrats, the military seems to have been following a policy of ‘containment’, whereby civilian governments are allowed to rule, but not allowed to extend their power into domains in which the military does not want their power to be extended or where it intends to continue to play a dominant decision making role. These domains range from accountability of the military’s serving and retired members [including ex-dictators] to domestic anti-terrorism policy and Pakistan’s relations with the US, Afghanistan and India.

In the present case, the government could have avoided the ongoing protests. Instead of shunning PTI’s allegations of rigging as false and frivolous, the government should have acknowledged the deficiencies of the system, and endeavoured to allay PTI’s concerns by providing a platform for bringing out necessary reforms. This was eventually done, but only after PTI had announced its long march. Similarly, there was no need for police action in Model Town. Apart from the brutality, the operation brought to the fore the ugly spectacle of police politicisation by ruling party loyalists, providing ideal ground for street agitation.

The PTI and PAT have genuine grievances. But their demands for resignation of the Prime Minister and dissolution of assemblies on the basis of these grievances are unjustified and detrimental to the future of Pakistan’s democracy.

To begin with, institutions which command the backing of tens of millions of voters cannot be dissolved at the insistence of a few thousand protesters or even a few hundred thousand dejected voters. Secondly, the dissolution of assemblies and resignation of the PM will not be a ‘quick-fix’ for any of the country’s chronic, entrenched problems, including its somewhat flawed electoral system. The experience of forcible, premature dissolution of assemblies in the past stands as testimony to this fact. It’s a tried-and-tested formula, which has never failed to fail.

The consequences for consolidation of civilian democratic power in the country are perhaps the most serious. The civilian government has been ‘contained’, forced to cede ‘space’ to the military in return for a guarantee against military takeover. In that sense, both PTI and PAT have played the role of mere pawns in the broader power struggle between the two actual centers of power in Pakistani politics. Without solid, publicly verifiable evidence, one cannot confidently claim that these protests have been orchestrated by the military. Yet, given that institution’s history of interventions, and the leverage it has gained from the turmoil, one cannot help but feel suspicious.

In 2013, I voted for PTI because PTI represented my hopes for a better future. But on this one issue, I have no choice but to publicaly differ with the party’s position. I hope that the government will not pay the slightest heed to the protesters’ demands for either the Prime Minister’s resignation nor the dissolution of assemblies. Mr. Nawaz Sharif’s mode of government continues to be autocratic and nepotistic. But the preservation and continuation of the democratic system is more important than his resignation. It is high time the protest leaderships show the maturity to realize this and withdraw their demands for resignation and dissolution.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

@mhaiderimtiaz