The final phase of local government elections, across the province of Punjab, were finally concluded earlier this week. In several districts, the local government elections were a fiercely contested display of grassroots democracy, between PML-N and… well, PML-N. Not surprisingly, PML-N won most of these contests.

Specifically, PML-N’s Colonel (Retd.) Mubashir Javaid was declared to be the Mayor of Lahore, unopposed of course, after the Election Commission of Pakistan had rejected the candidature of his opponent from PTI (because the party had failed to complete its panel). All nine Deputy Mayors of Lahore, PML-N candidates, were also elected unopposed. Similarly, PML-N candidates have won in Bahawalpur, Multan, Rahim Yar Khan, Vehari, Layyah, Gujrat and Faisalabad (contesting against intra-party candidates in some places).

Most political pundits claim that this result was a fait accompli – after all, the incumbent government usually wins most of the by-election and local government seats. The argument has merits, of course. But the results of the local government elections in Punjab, less than 18 months before the next general elections, raises a very important question that PTI and other opposition parties must answer: has the entire rhetoric about Panama Leaks and election rigging, including the ongoing proceedings in the honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan, made any difference to the street popularity of PML-N? Has the message of PTI, repeated ad nauseam form containers and dharnas, had any impact on the electoral math? Has PTI lost its way, amidst the myriad of partisan haggling? And if so, is there any way for it to regain its original identity, as a legitimate and clean third option?

Let’s start at the beginning: at least in October of 2011 (the true date when Imran Khan’s political party was born), PTI was defined more by what it was not, rather than what it was. The narrative was that while ‘everyone else is a ‘chor’, PTI is not!’; members of other political parties hide their assets and evade taxes, whereas PTI members do not; other parties frequently compromise their principles (‘muk-muka’), whereas PTI does not. And this definition formed an integral part of PTI’s appeal amongst a new generation of disillusioned voters who had been disappointed by decades of bad governance!

However, over the past five years, this definition has received fatal blows on account of PTI’s internal policies. Today, at every jalsa, we find Imran Khan flanked by faces that he promised he was ‘not’!

But why did Khan Sb. reach out to individuals with questionable loyalties and tarnished political legacies? Why did he allow for party idealism to bow at the tainted altar of the ‘electables’? The answer, at its core, represents a sentiment that belies Khan Sb.’s overt persona: it must be that Khan not convinced that his political message and vision is enough to carry the popular vote of the masses; that PTI’s message itself is not ‘electable’, and therefore the party needs electable personalities.

This compromise has been a miscalculation on part of Khan Sb. And as a result, even his ‘electables’ could not make a strong showing in the 2013 elections (in terms of winning national assembly seats). Consequently, in May of 2013, Khan Sb. lost two important things: 1) the election; and 2) the defining feature of his political appeal – that unlike other, his was a party of clean members, who do not suffer from the ghosts of the past.

Still, there was hope that Khan Sb. could redeem his electoral loss through a well thought out and resilient message in the opposition. That is, until Khan Sb. started to argue that ludicrous idea of conducting ‘peaceful negotiations’ with the Taliban. Almost instantaneously, the few thinking minds that supported Imran Khan, ran for cover. How do you defend such a position? How do you shake hands with an outfit whose other hand is holding a pistol to your children’s head? But Khan Sb. persisted with his thought, only to be embarrassed when TTP announced that they would like Khan to be one of the individuals who should negotiate, on their behalf, with the State of Pakistan.

Still, however, there were a few political struggles that had the potential of redeeming Khan and his party. And the first of these was concerning allegations of rigging in the 2013 general elections.

Having gone through the requisite rounds before the Election Commission, the Tribunals, and even (Iftikhar Chaudhary’s) Supreme Court, Khan Sb. finally brought this fight to the streets. With able help from a few outside forces (including the establishment and Tahir-ul-Qadri) Khan Sb. played his dharna innings reasonably well. There were a few nights when one thought that Khan’s efforts might result in regime change. But it wasn’t to be. With one eye towards the finger of the third-umpire, Khan started to lose his crowd, and his direction. Finally when, in the shadow of the APS Peshawar tragedy, Khan got his judicial commission (led by an impartial Chief Justice), Khan and his party failed to prove the allegations that they had been chanting for months. And again, the promise of Khan fizzled into thin air.

In the months that followed, Khan and his PTI faced much criticism for their politics of protest. At the same time, observant analysts started to point out that PTI did not have much to show for its performance in KPK. And slowly, it became apparent to most people that Khan Sb. was in the tall grass.

Enter Panama Leaks. At the twilight of an arduous political journey, Khan Sb. has been gifted with a God-sent opportunity; Nawaz Sharif and his family have been implicated in Panama Leaks, and further, have sullied their cause by giving contradictory statements about it to the national and international press.

In the aftermath, Khan Sb. has done what he does best: protest. Not in the National Assembly, as much as on the streets across Pakistan. And eventually, after much political haggling and backstage management, the honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan is seized of the matter, as was desired by Khan Sb. and his party. Notwithstanding the substantive and procedural reservations about the manner in which this case has (thus far) proceeded in the honorable Supreme Court, the truth is that Imran Khan and his party have not helped their cause. From the tall claims made during dharna speeches, it seemed that Khan and his party had irrefutable documentary evidence to present an open-and-shut case. But, sadly, that has not been true. And now, the entire political legitimacy of Imran Khan hangs on the impending judicial verdict.

Khan Sb. and PTI must reevaluate their political and electoral strategy. There is still some time before the next general elections and, for now (as evidenced in the recent local body elections), PML-N faces no real threat of an upset. If Khan Sb. and his party lose in the Supreme Court, they might have nothing up their sleeves, come election time.

PTI must find a way to reconnect with that spirit that brought thousands of people to Minar-e-Pakistan, back in 2011. Because, in politics, there are no points for second place.