The mood was of heady excitement. Polling for the October 1993 election in Lahore had got off to a slow start, but young supporters of the PPP had already started gathering outside a polling station in Model Town. That wasn’t very far from the family residence of PML-N leader Mian Nawaz Sharif, who had been forced by the army chief to resign in July along with then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan to pave the way for a new election to end several months of a bitter tussle over power between the two.
The crowd grew with more college- and university-going boys and girls arriving in cars and on motorcycles. Shortly, they hit the road, waving PPP flags and chanting “Wazir-i-Azam Benazir” as they drove from one polling station to another.
They had obviously been re-energised by the arrival of Benazir Bhutto in the city a couple of days earlier, as well as their certainty that their party would win.
PML-N activists in Gawalmandi, from where their leader was contesting the election, were sombre, with some workers hitting out angrily at Ghulam Ishaq Khan for having ‘conspired’ against their party’s government and for joining forces with their leader’s ‘enemy’, Benazir Bhutto.
Yet they were working hard at inducing voters to come out and were transporting them to polling stations.
Occasionally, you would hear announcements from loudspeakers fixed on pick-up vans about the imminent arrival of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed: “Zalimo Qazi aa raha hai (Oppressors! Qazi is coming)” the workers of the Pakistan Islamic Front (PIF) - a kind of a ‘liberal’ and broad-based platform created by the JI to fight the elections - would chant.
Even after the PIF van moved away, the echoes would remain in the air, prompting jokes.
Overall, the mood was quite festive and as the day wore on a considerably large turnout of voters kept the polling staff busy. Shortly after the counting began, young PPP supporters assembled outside newspaper offices to wait for the announcement of their party’s victory.
Yet many quietly left early as unofficial returns suggested that PML-N men were winning from everywhere in the city.
Only the tenacious jiyalas were left to counter the shouts of victory from the PML-N activists.
Encouraged by their apparent triumph in the city, PML-N supporters now hoped for a return to power.
By 10pm it was clear that Nawaz Sharif had consolidated his hold over Lahore, once considered a fortress of the PPP and the Bhuttos.
The victory of Khalid Ghurki from Wagah by just over 70 votes was the only consolation for PPP jiyalas who had been hoping to at least repeat the party’s performance in 1988 (when the PPP won six out of nine National Assembly seats from the city) if not improve upon it.
The majority of the losing PPP candidates were already not available to journalists. Only Salmaan Taseer was up to receive calls to candidly admit that “we had miscalculated” the popularity of Nawaz Sharif in Lahore and the rest of Punjab.
The next morning, the PPP emerged as the single largest party in the NA but was 13 seats behind the rival PML-N in the Punjab Assembly.
It had again been unable to recapture Punjab and had to accept Mian Manzoor Wattoo, with just 17 MPAs in the provincial assembly against the PPP’s 92, as chief minister in exchange for the PML-Junejo’s support for it in Islamabad.
The PPP has not yet been able to reverse the trend in Lahore in particular and Punjab in general. But even when the contest has often been apparently one-sided, the romance, the thrill associated with people secretly speaking through vote has survived.
Like that October day in Lahore in 1993, it’s never over until the last vote has been counted.