The country has finally come to the end of the local body elections, with a number of things apparent. Perhaps most obvious is the advantage of incumbency, but in the provincial government, not the federal. The party ruling in the centre lost in the two provinces ruled by other parties, and also more or less lost in the Federal Capital Territory, where the federal government performs the functions of the provincial.

One of the lessons that the Islamabad poll threw up was that the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) was stronger in the urban areas than the rural. The clear implication was that rural areas were more subject to the incumbency factor than the urban areas. Another explanation, feeds into that observation, that the PTI was probably unable to get the candidate mix right. That is an important part of the incumbency advantage, the picking of the right candidates. That has nothing to do with rigging the elections, but is worth an inordinate number of votes.

The PTI itself enjoyed this incumbency advantage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it controls the government, and duly won the majority of seats there.

It also emerged as the main opposition to the PML-N in Punjab, and has displaced the PPP there as the party vying for power. However, caveats are necessary. First, the PPP has traditionally done badly in local body elections. Apart from some success in 1983, its record has been one of embarrassing defeat. However, those defeats have been embarrassing, and if taken as guides to the future, the present local body polls may indicate a comeback. (The 1987 and 1992 local body defeats were succeeded by general election victories in 1988 and 1993. Thus if the next general election is held in 2016, the PPP should win). However, it has not achieved that status in Sindh, where the main opposition is the PML-N. Its position in Karachi and Hyderabad shows that while it has not replaced the PML-N in the rural areas, it has done so in the urban strongholds where the MQM still holds sway.

The PTI seems to have suffered from being associated with the armed forces, because that would offer one explanation of how badly it has done in the MQM strongholds. It should be noted that the recent military operation, while it may have rid the city of some of the worst aspects of the spiral into violence, it has not acted to dent the MQM. The MQM has fed the sense of victimhood it has used since being founded almost 30 years ago, by claiming the operation was against it.

The PTI has also been vocal about the need to have local elections. This too won it kudos in military circles, where local elections succeeding martial law have been a priority on the military agenda. Islamisation (as Ziaul Haq carried out) or modernization (as Musharraf wanted) may be a matter for military debate, but local bodies have been a constant, with only the Yahya regime not conducting them. The emphasis that the PTI places on local body elections marks it as sharing the view of military regimes, and puts it foursquare against the other political parties, which oppose local body elections.

It should be noted that local body polls only took place because the Supreme Court forced them through over the provincial governments.

It is because of this opposition that the polls were not held on the same day nationwide, as was the case in all polls up to 2007, but on separate dates for separate provinces, with polls in Punjab and Sindh on the same dates, but in three different stages. This piecemeal process reflected the readiness of the law enforcing agencies, but the net result has been that the districts going to the poll later will not be able to avoid the influence of the earlier results. Those earlier results included the victory of the PTI in the province it ruled, and thus the earlier victory of the National Party in Balochistan was also justified.

To that extent, that the results saw the winners repeat their general election victories, the local body polls followed precedent, but they took place after the devolution experiment of the Musharraf era, and would result in the first election to local bodies where nazims no longer headed the districts. The military’s wish, that power should be exercised at district level, had been reversed by provincial governments which had quickly established their own control over the local bodies.

An interesting aspect is how the PML-N found itself left out of Balochistan, where it is the junior partner in the coalition headed by the National Party. At the same time, the National Party is also accused of keeping its nominee as Chief Minister, even though the terms of the powersharing agreement call for the post to switch hands. A complicating factor has been the fact that the districts were reshaped by the Zia regime to allow the tribes their own districts, and the local bodies would be headed by either the tribal sardar or his nominee. Under those circumstances, it would be interesting to see what might happen if a tribal sardar (the frontrunning PML-N candidate for Chief Minister) was to replace a non-sardar (the incumbent).

It should also appear clear to all that no party has really suffered a decline in support since the general election. There does not appear to have been any advance of the process by which the PPP voter is transferring his loyalties to the PTI. This may be more apparent in the next general election, due by 2018. If the PPP has performed badly in the Punjab, and all of Sindh’s urban areas except Lyari, it did so in the general election. The electorate does not seem to have used the poll to punish the government in any way. Is that supposed to mean a vote of confidence in its policies?

It can be interpreted that way, but it does not seem justified to take that argument very far. However, it does illustrate the symbiotic link of the local bodies with the PML-N. It is worth noting that the local body councilors play a crucial role in candidate selection. Though there has been much chopping and changing, the PML-N remains the same party it was in 1988, when it included a large number of local councilors in its candidate’s ranks.

If the PTI gives this importance to local councillors, it will have to fight the elections more purposefully than if, as now, its only aim is to provide itself an excuse to demand a purification of the system. Such demands are made by military regimes, for political parties know that they have to operate within the system as it exists.