It is to the credit of both Imran Khan and Dr Tahirul Qadri that their marches have lasted as long as they have, but it should be kept in mind that these marches represent a critique of democracy generally, and not solely as it is practiced in Pakistan. And all this without examining one of the main problems of modern democracy; that of campaign finance.

Both the Azadi and Inquilab Marches show us one of the basic problems of democracy. What happens if one party does not accept the result? This is a phenomenon which Pakistanis have become increasingly used to, and have seen many safeguards introduced into their election laws. If there was a winner-take-all system for our bureaucracy, that might make sense, but considering that there is a large permanent civil service recruited by competition, this reason is not there.

Both Imran and Dr Qadri lay emphasis on the removal of the chief executives. There may or may not be an element of personal animus in this, but the fact is that it merely reflects the strength of the state. Imran says there can be no fair investigation of the rigging charges he has made about the 2013 polls, Dr Qadri of the murders of the PAT workers in Model Town on June 17. That they fear the Prime Minister may influence the first investigation, or the Chief Minister the second, indicates that the state lacks impartiality. It is not restricted to a democratic state that a government investigation should proceed impartially, irrespective of the chief executive.

Imran’s rigging allegations are serious, but that does not make them correct. At the same time, they have sufficient credibility to make enough party supporters descend on Islamabad. Similarly, Dr Qadri’s allegations are behind his supporters’ coming. Both are serious, but Imran’s affect how executive power is obtained, while Dr Qadri’s deal with how it is exercised. In the whole mishmash, the element of governance has been introduced by delay. Imran’s allegations only came after a year had passed since the elections, and thus the Nawaz government had had more than a year to deliver. That raises the uncomfortable question of whether the rigging allegations would have been swept under the carpet if governance had been good.

The underlying assumption of the marchers is thus that ‘true’ democracy would yield better governance. This seems to be the same argument that has been used against military rule by democratic parties. The marchers are therefore thought to be imposing their own leaders as rulers. This is a sign of the refusal to accept a loss. While Imran’s loss in 2013 was after he could have won, Dr Qadri was not even theoretically competitive.

The refusal to accept the result is a symptom of a greater crisis of democracy. True, elections alone do not constitute democracy, but without elections, and an acceptance of their results, democracy is unthinkable. Events in Pakistan feed into something else that occurred in Asia in 2014, and it is necessary to see the results of elections in Bangladesh, Thailand and Afghanistan. In Bangladesh, the election was one-sided, with the main opposition party, the BNP, boycotting the poll. This is an example of what happens when a ruling party insists on winning at any cost. In short, refusing (in advance) to accept the result.

Thailand represents the dangers all fear for Pakistan. Elections have led to the Shinawatras leading governments based on peasant votes. There is dominance of precisely the rural, non-Westernised types the PTI dreads so much. The fallout of the latest election victory was that the rural, non-Bangkok-based vote won again, the military took over after the urban, educated Constitutional Court ruled the latest election improperly held, and a new nominated assembly voted the coup-making Army chief Prime Minister. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is more direct. Abdullah Abdullah did not accept the results of the election, which declared that Ashraf Ghani had won. It took US Secretary of State John Kerry to personally intervene to make both accept not just a ‘vote audit’, but that the winner form a joint government with the loser. Imran has haughtily rejected US intervention, but would he have refused if the US had intervened to get him some or all of what he wanted?

And then, there have been parliamentary elections in India, and presidential elections in Turkey and Indonesia. The Indian elections are held as an example by Imran Khan, but there was little evidence that they did not involve the usual booth capturing and ballot stuffing by criminal candidates on both sides. The BJP came to power, and though the poll may have been imperfect, the result was accepted by the loser after it had held office for a decade. The Indonesian elections were also very close, and the winner had to face a legal challenge.

One argument made in all these cases, and in Pakistan’s, is that the voter is not educated enough. This is an unnecessary denigration of the voter, and does not accept the possibility that democracy might be at fault. An examination of Western democracies show that they do not approach the ideal the marchers claim. Democracy is seen as the mechanism by which popular consent is obtained for policies favouring the rich. The recent ‘Occupy’ Movement was a harrowing critique of Western democracy by those who did not benefit from it.

Accepting that democracy might be flawed as a system does not mean accepting the militant claim that it is un-Islamic, but it also does not appear to imply what both the government and the marchers seem to claim, along with almost all other political parties: that democracy is some sort of sacred principle, or that the 1973 Constitution must be followed come what may. That it is somehow sacrosanct is well revealed by its treatment at the hands of the military: it was retained in both interventions, being ‘held in abeyance’ rather than abrogated, as was the case with previous martial laws. This seems to be the real fear generated by the marches; that they will pave the way for a military takeover. If so, it would prove to be another crisis of democracy, not unlike in Egypt, a Muslim country where the military has overthrown an elected ruler.

It should be noted that the Pakistani military is already engaged in Operation Zarb-i-Azb, but that is not enough to stop it from taking over. What might stop it is the realization that it does not have solutions to the very real economic problems the country faces. Therein is the real reason the marches have got as far as they have.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.