There is a logical paradox that will undoubtedly perplex philosophers and sports commentators for years to come: can a political party headed by a world-famous sportsman and trafficking in the use of cricketing metaphors to describe its superiority over other parties itself be denigrated using similar types of speech? For example, would it make sense to say that the PTI was ‘clean bowled’ by the PML-N in the local government elections held in Punjab last week, or that Imran Khan and his party were ‘hit for six’ by their opponents? Could it be said that the 2013 general elections, the NA-122 by-election, and the local government polls constitute a ‘hat-trick’ for the PML-N, and that the PTI’s performance these past two years is indicative of the follies associated with staying at ‘silly point’?

The results of the local government elections were not surprising, even if the scale of the PTI’s lack of performance was a bit unanticipated.

In Punjab and Sindh, the incumbent provincial governments have cemented their hold on political power by successfully capturing the lowest tier of government, with partisans of both the PML-N and the PPP taking this as vindication of the performance of the two parties in their respective areas. That these claims are usually accompanied by the derisive snorts and bitter laughs of those who hear them is only to be expected. After all, a conversation with the average voter, or even a cursory look around, would be sufficient to disabuse anyone of the notion that governance is one of the strong suits of the parties in power. Anemic economic performance, an utter disregard for the health, education, and general well-being of the populace, allegedly rampant corruption, and a worsening civil-military balance, all are examples of the dubious ‘achievements’ of the governments at the federal and provincial levels.

In this context, how can we explain the dominance displayed by the PML-N and the PPP? One explanation, which appears to be favoured by the PTI itself, suggests that the local government elections rigged, with this being made possible by the control exercised by the provincial governments over the local bureaucracy. Or, to use yet another cricketing metaphor, there was ‘ball tampering’.

While there is some evidence to support of these claims, with FAFEN reporting irregularities in a large number of constituencies. Indeed, even though the Judicial Commission and the result of the NA-122 by-election definitively laid the PTI’s claims of widespread electoral misconduct to rest, the absence of proof about systematic rigging does not mean that the electoral process in Pakistan is free from problems and flaws. The ECP’s lack of power and capacity, coupled with broader bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, means that electoral distortions are virtually inevitable across the country. Nevertheless, pointing out how the ECP and the local bureaucracy mismanage elections does not automatically imply that rigging took place as part of some broader plan. Put differently, it could be argued that it is the institutional deficiencies of the ECP, rather than the perfidious intentions of the mainstream parties, that account for the problems with Pakistan’s elections.

Consequently, while rigging could potentially explain the victories enjoyed by the PML-N and the PPP, the inability to provide proof of this, as opposed to proof of incompetence (which, after all, would have varying and ultimately indeterminate effects from constituency to constituency), necessitates a search for alternative explanations. Here, it makes sense to consider a completely different aspect of the matter, namely the way in which the provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab have essentially made use of their legislative power to engineer systems of government that would be guaranteed to perpetuate their position at the local level.

The argument here is simple. As would be demonstrated by a perusal of the local government acts passed in both Sindh and Punjab, the devolution of powers and responsibilities that is supposed to take place with the formation of local governments has been given nothing more than lip-service, with the provincial governments (empowered after the 18th Amendment) putting in place various mechanisms through which to constrain and control the union and district councils that have now come into being. Most significantly, the provincial governments have retained the right to fund the local governments and also dismiss them as and when required. Lacking significant revenue generation powers of their own, and constantly at risk of being dissolved for failing to follow the lead of the provincial governments, the new Councillors, Chairmen and Mayors dotting the landscape of Punjab and Sindh will ultimately be beholden to the PML-N and the PPP for the funds and authorization required to undertake their jobs.

The implications of this for the electoral process are clear. Candidates across the country will have undoubtedly told their voters that their local governments would only be able to function as long as they enjoyed the support and backing of the provincial governments. Voters, being rational and strategic actors, would have responded to these cues by casting ballots in favour of individuals associated with the PPP and the PML-N, even if this might have meant sacrificing principle at the altar of pragmatism. This, coupled with lower voter turnout (long a feature of local elections) is what is responsible for the electoral monopolies achieved by the PPP and the PML-N. The true beauty of this entire process is that, in a way, it obviates the need for overt rigging, essentially institutionalizing an incentive structure that compels voters to support the incumbent or else risk being deprived of significant development funding and public service provision.

This does not mean that the outcome of the elections of last week was necessarily a foregone conclusion. The smaller scale of the local elections did open up a real opportunity for the PTI and other parties to capture a larger share of the political space, and the success enjoyed by independents in Punjab (many of whom were, admittedly, informally aligned with the PML-N) demonstrates how this might have been possible. As such, the PTI needs to reflect on the organizational and ideological shortcomings that continue to hamstring its electoral success, and needs to move away from an ultimately pointless fixation with rigging towards a more nuanced and comprehensive platform of programmatic politics that offers a credible alternative to the shambolic governance of the PML-N and PPP.

At a broader level, the local government elections represent a mixed bag for the future of democracy in Pakistan. While party-based polls and the creation of local governments have rightly been welcomed as a step in the right direction, the imbalance between the local and provincial levels, as well as the stranglehold enjoyed by the incumbent parties, will inevitably entrench the patron-client politics that continues to characterize Pakistan. Having said that, the very existence of an additional tier of government has the potential to generate new dynamics of competition and contestation, even within parties, that could ultimately serve to make democratic politics in Pakistan more responsive and effective. Whether or not this will happen is something that only time will tell.