Here we go again. Imran Khan has announced that he will, once again, take the nation on Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) dharna (sit-in) merry-go-round. The party machinery will mobilise supporters. Anthems will be sung, dances performed, and fiery speeches delivered. The PTI container, motorcade, and troops will descend on Raiwind to pressure Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign. But at the end of the circus, which will drain the time and energy of participants and disrupt the livelihoods of citizens, what will be PTI’s contribution to eliminating political corruption? Is it time for the party to mature from passionate political showmanship to sober democratic politics and institution-building?PTI certainly has the right to protest after the Panama leaks scandal but its protest will not be useful, either to Pakistan or to PTI itself, unless it is tied to a reasonable demand that will actually increase accountability and transparency. Sharif’s resignation will not fix the problem. Tomorrow another ruler will take his place and do the same, possibly one of the businessmen within PTI’s ranks who have used public office for private gain in the past. Unmoored from a tangible proposal for reform, PTI’s personality-focused dharna theatrics can only undermine democracy. PTI owes the nation and its workers better.Protests are the lifeblood of democracy because they convey the preferences of citizens, but rulers have the right to decide how to respond to protestors — whether to ignore them, negotiate with them, or accept their demands. If a group of citizens insists on occupying a public space and spreading unrest and instability, until its will is forced on other citizens, this is not democracy but mob rule. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has masterfully used this technique to destabilise governments in the past. In 1953, the then chief minister, Mumtaz Daultana ‘canalised’ the agitation of religious groups to declare Ahmadis non-Muslim towards the centre, destabilising the then prime minister, M Khwaja Nazimuddin. In 1990, the then chief minister, Nawaz Sharif, with the blessing of the establishment, backed the protests of religious parties for a maximalist Shariah Bill to destabilise the then prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. This strategy helps oppositions score short-term victories but undermines the capacity of a government to rule and disrupts the continuity of the democratic process.If Sharif does resign, due to the instability generated by PTI’s protests, the party will have set a precedent that will haunt it in times to come. If it gains power, the PML-N leaders will have no trouble finding evidence of morally objectionable behaviour by PTI’s high command that can inspire the passion of a mob. The PTI leaders eager for Sharif’s resignation should ask themselves whether they would want their political fate settled by a mob or by the country’s established legal and political institutions. They may target Sharif today but they can be the targets tomorrow. For the military, the PTI and PML-N, Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the good and the bad Taliban, are so many chess pieces in a grand game; by going down the dharna rabbit-hole, PTI will once again play into the establishment’s hands. PTI’s many critics assert that the party was supported by the military intelligence, came of age as the B-team of the establishment, and can amount to nothing more. More forgiving observers contend that the PTI has broad and genuine grassroots support, not only in the urban areas where it was first organised, but also in rural constituencies where the former PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid leaders have thrown their weight behind it. Party workers spend most of their time in membership campaigns and elections, while it is only a handful of leaders in the party’s high command who are privy to tactical discussions with the military. If PTI’s top leadership allows the party to be used, once again, in the military’s alleged ‘power struggle’ with Sharif, it will prove its critics right and de-legitimise the long democratic struggle of its workers.PTI’s dharna politics creates an artificial unity within the PTI, which diverts attention from the lack of systems within the party to make decisions, process conflict, and check corruption. PTI’s inability to check corruption within its own ranks has been exposed by amendments to the Khyber Pakthunkhwa (KPK) Ehtesab Commission Act, the SCAD report (which found PTI leaders guilty of selling tickets in the local bodies elections), the Tasneem Noorani report (which found evidence of rigging in PTI’s intra party-elections), and by the Justice Wajihuddin tribunal (which suggested penalties for PTI leaders who had rigged the IPEs). Only in the case of the KPK Ehtesab Commission did Imran Khan intervene to strengthen an anti-corruption institution; the rest he ignored.PTI’s protest can be useful if it is linked to a concrete proposal for building systems to check corruption in Pakistan and is followed up with pressure through parliament, media, and grassroots associations and if Khan adopts such systems within the party. Starting another zero-sum struggle with Sharif will harm democracy but will not reduce corruption.