The dominance displayed by the PPP and the PML-N in the recently held local government elections, while not unexpected, raises some fascinating questions about the nature and quality of Pakistan’s democracy. On the one hand, there is a widespread narrative that suggests the democratic process is fundamentally broken, and that the victories enjoyed by largely incompetent and allegedly corrupt incumbents can be attributed to electoral misconduct by the candidates and administrative failings on the part of the Election Commission of Pakistan, On the other hand, the consistency with which incumbents have been rewarded in Punjab and Sindh, and the logistical complexities involved in repeatedly rigging every electoral contest, particularly in a context where many national and international observers view Pakistan’s recent elections as being broadly free and fair, suggests that claims of malfeasance might by overblown, and that the electorate is genuinely choosing to stick with the PPP and the PML-N.

The truth of the matter, and the answer to the question of how and why people vote, lies somewhere between these two explanations. Amidst the widespread, and not entirely unfounded, belief that the electoral system in Pakistan suffers from serious shortcomings, it would be extremely naïve to believe that the process unfolds without any willful distortions, although allegations of systemic manipulation need to be tempered by an understanding of the precise mechanisms, and underlying structural factors, that both facilitate and limit these interventions. Similarly, while local subversions of the electoral process can and do produce skewed outcomes, it would be misleading to assume that any and all votes for the incumbents are false. The fact that people are voting for the PPP and the PML-N is not surprising or controversial; what is more interesting is understanding precisely why they do so given that most conventional measures of governance would suggest that both parties continue to perform poorly in the provinces they rule.

The key to the paradox – voters choosing parties that perform poorly – lies in a recognition of the way in which political power is acquired and exercised at the local level. The contemporary political landscape of Pakistan is characterized by the existence of parties that suffer from a tremendous lack of organizational capacity. What this means is that when it comes to mobilizing voters, articulating and aggregating popular interests and demands, and formulating programmatic policy platforms inspired by particular ideological worldviews, parties in Pakistan largely lack the cadres, intellectual horsepower, and independent resources required to make all of this happen. Instead, they usually prefer to outsource these activities to influential local elites – the stereotypical ‘electables’ – who possess the symbolic and material means to garner support for themselves and, consequently, the parties they represent.

The weakness of Pakistan’s parties is not difficult to explain. Decades of military rule accompanied by bans on political activity, the incarceration of persecution of dissidents, and the empowerment of leaders brought into government on a ‘non-party’ basis, has meant that parties inhabiting the democratic space in Pakistan necessarily have to do so in a context defined by the de facto power of the military establishment at a macro level and the entrenchment of local elites at the micro level. While the former constrains democracy and democratic entities in its own way, the latter does so by fostering an environment in which parties seeking electoral victory essentially end up competing to co-opt the elites who comprise the traditional political class in Pakistan.

Understanding why this happens means examining what it is that makes someone ‘electable’. While it is certainly true that money and social status help, as evinced by the stranglehold on mainstream politics exercised by the propertied classes, the main currency in which electables trade is influence, using their connections to the bureaucracy, police, and other elected representatives to provide their constituents/subordinates with state patronage. Given the often hereditary nature of political power in Pakistan, influential families and candidates are able to leverage their wealth and historical involvement with government to continue exercising power at the local level, perpetuating the much-maligned but endemic thana-katcheri politics that is a fact of life in this country. Those political entrepreneurs who lack this background, emerging instead out of student or street-level politics, are quick to invest their newly-acquired political capital in the cultivation of similar networks of power and influence. Either way, the ability to provide patronage – by resolving disputes with the police, providing a gas connection, or getting someone a government job – becomes fundamentally important in a context where the state itself is largely incapable of providing public goods in a fair and equitable manner. That this all serves to further erode state capacity only perpetuates the importance of the electables.

Parties are thus confronted with a dilemma. If they choose to accommodate electables, they will enjoy an electoral advantage but will also cede considerable decision-making power and authority to those individuals. However, if they choose not to work with electables, they run the risk of losing to rival parties that might have no such qualms. This is particularly true when considering how local-level rigging is itself made possible by electables possessing the institutional wherewithal required for facilitating it. Eventually, this creates a race to the bottom in which Pakistan’s already weak parties sacrifice their organizational development at the altar of political expediency, competing with each other to attract local elites while reducing themselves to being nothing more than vehicles through which these elites can engage in collective action within Pakistan’s legislative institutions. One need only look at the factional infighting within both the PTI and the PML-N to see the effects of this, with rival groups of electables engaging in internecine warfare amidst the inability of the party leadership to impose any kind of meaningful discipline or control.

It is here that we return to the voters themselves. While some have argued that there is a demand-side problem, in the sense that voters simply lack the information and the wisdom to elect good candidates, the explanation given above suggests that the problem is actually with supply. When confronted by a situation in which all the major candidates are ‘electables’, and the state remains fundamentally incapable of providing public services without the intervention of these intermediaries, voters have little choice but to strategically vote for the person who will be most likely to be able to provide them with patronage. Indeed, while voters might want to support candidates representing a radical break with status quo, such candidates would probably be unable to get much done in a system dominated by the traditional political class and its networks. Seen this way, votes for the PPP, PML-N, Independents, and even the PTI are largely based on a recognition of how electable candidates will be able to command the levers of public service delivery. Ideology and aspiration have little to do with it, and the situation is unlikely to change barring the emergence of a broad-based, grassroots movement explicitly aimed at eliminating elite power.

Postscript: On Saturday, in what has become a regrettably familiar sequence of events, a mob set fire to a factory in Jhelum after allegations of blasphemy were leveled against its owners. Once again, the flames of hatred were fanned by local mosques using their loudspeakers to arouse the mob’s passions and encourage violence. Amidst the self-congratulatory narratives saturating the media about the nation’s collective resolve to fight religious militancy, it is important to remember that a concerted ideological effort will be need to counter the cancer of bigotry and intolerance that runs deep in society.

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