The PTI’s defeat to the PML-N in the recently held by-election in NA-154 is one of those events that few would have predicted beforehand, but which makes complete sense in hindsight. Prior to the election, the PTI’s leaders and activists had struck a triumphant tone, confident that they would win and concerned only with the margin of their victory. As the votes poured in and gradually confirmed the PML-N had won, the PTI’s mood turned introspective. What had happened? How could the party lose what was believed to be one of its safest seats, and what lessons could be learnt from the loss?

As confusion and bewilderment morphed into acceptance and then anger, the PTI’s leaders and activists were quick to start assigning blame for the Lodhran debacle. Unlike the past, where rigging and the unsavory shenanigans of the ruling party were blamed for electoral losses, the PTI could not make similar claims about NA-154 having spent the better part of several weeks stating that it had complete faith in the polling process, and that there was no question of there being any organized electoral misconduct. Scapegoats were therefore sought elsewhere. Imran Khan, for example, attributed the defeat to the inexperience of Ali Tareem, the party’s candidate and son of Jehangir Tareen, the influential incumbent who had been disqualified from holding office by the Supreme Court. Others, predictably enough, suggested that the PML-N had carried the day by resorting to its ‘usual’ tactics of coercion and cooptation to win over local vote blocs and peel support away from the PTI. In what has become a depressingly familiar sight, PTI supporters also took to blaming the electorate, berating voters for their ‘ignorance’ and ‘illiteracy’ for choosing to support the PML-N’s candidate.

The truth of what happened is not too difficult to discern, however, and gets to the core of the problem that the PTI faces as we get closer to the 2018 general elections scheduled for this summer. As I have previously argued in this space, and as many others have also been saying for years (including, most recently, Adnan Rasool writing in Dawn), the PTI is trapped in a dilemma. On the one hand, the PTI seeks to appeal to voters through a principled commitment to bringing about a radical departure from the status quo premised on an end to ‘traditional’ politics and the corruption associated with it. It would not be incorrect to say that a significant portion of the PTI’s base supports the party for this reason, and that one of the principal ways in which the party can signal its adherence to its principles is by putting forward fresh, new candidates chosen through a selection process that is more democratic and transparent than that of its rivals. On the other hand, the reality is that much of Pakistan’s constituency politics continues to be dominated by dynastic ‘electables’, whose possession of economic resources and centrality to local networks of influence and patronage enables them to cobble together stable vote blocs that can swing elections. In this context, after repeated defeats at the hands of such traditional politicians, the PTI has actively sought to recruit such candidates and give them party tickets. The logic presumably is that once these candidates manage to win seats, the party will be able to constrain any inclination they might have to engage in politics as usual, and enforce adherence to the party’s broader manifesto and ideology (such as it is).

The problem, of course, is that the two tendencies described above are mutually exclusive. A party cannot realistically claim to be against the status quo while simultaneously accommodating the very same politicians and candidates it purportedly opposes. For the PTI, the implications of this contradictory strategy have been clear for some time; in addition to alienating many of its core voters and activists (sacrificed at the altar of cultivating wider appeal through the co-optation of large local vote blocs), it has also exposed deep divisions within the party itself. In addition to the well-documented rift between the party’s so-called ‘ideological’ and ‘unity’ wings, which has pitted an old guard committed to change against a new influx of electables and opportunists, the PTI’s willingness to engage in traditional constituency-level politicking has also triggered conflict between local leaders jockeying for party tickets and influence.

Ali Tareen, by all accounts, was not a poor choice of candidate for the PTI but the manner in which he was chosen smacked of precisely the same kind of dynasticism and nepotism the PTI attacks other parties for. This, coupled with a reported rift between different factions of the party at the local level, meant that the PTI was simply unable to put together an effective campaign for mobilizing its voters. The party lacked both the ideological appeal and the organizational nous required to do so.

Moreover, it is worth bearing in mind that contrary to what many observers have been saying, the PML-N’s candidate Iqbal Shah was far from an unknown entity. While he might not possess a national profile, Shah has previously been a tehsil nazim in the district, and his father has been a member of the provincial Assembly for many years. Iqbal Shah is an established constituency politician and his local influence fused with the relatively better organizational capacity of the PML-N to deliver the NA-154 seat to the ruling party.

This might suggest that there is merit to the argument that local electables hold the key to victory in 2018, and that the PTI should double-down on its strategy of recruiting them. This might make sense, but it would also be useful to remember this is an alternative. A party, particularly one with the type of support the PTI ostensibly enjoys, could increase its chances of success and circumvent traditional forms of political mobilization by investing in the creation of a more disciplined and extensive local party apparatus that could make use of workers and volunteers to build support and momentum for candidates on the basis of ideology and policy, rather than patronage. However, since its inception, the PTI has either been unable or unwilling to do this, focusing instead on the appeal of spectacles like its repeated dharnas to win votes. As the NA-154 by-election shows, this strategy does not necessarily work. Understanding and manipulating the dynamics of local politics is key to electoral success in Pakistan and if the PTI wants to succeed without compromising on its stated principles, it would do well to address its glaring organizational shortcomings.


The writer is an assistant professor  of political science at LUMS.