“A THOUSAND rupees yielding no worthwhile results,” said the gentleman after he had undergone some blood tests to find out if all was okay with him. He had only agreed to the test under pressure from his well-wishers, and the results found him to be in perfect good health and in spirits to crack a joke about it, post-event.
Quite like the reaction of those who cannot help make fun of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf’s (PTI) second (and decisive?) defeat in a Punjab Assembly seat in Lahore on Wednesday.
The constituency was the surprise package in the Aug 22 by-elections. It was predicted the PML-N could face some fight at other places where by-polls were being held. The N-League deputed its stalwarts to various constituencies, primarily to stave off the PTI’s challenge. But Lahore was home and secure.
That was by and large true. It was a walk in the park for PML-N nominees in the city on Aug 22, bar PP-150. As results from polling stations came in, the PTI was winning the seat — until it lost the race right at the very end.
Mian Marghoob Ahmed, a custodian of the PML-N tiger, survived, even if by a thin margin. The PTI was denied a victory that could really have boosted its prospects in Punjab, and in the Sharif fortress of Lahore, after a lackadaisical performance since the holding of general elections in May.
The PTI realised the importance of winning in Lahore and had given the seat its best shot. It had a case for recount given that the difference was of 370-odd votes. Had it been another city and a less prominent lieutenant than Mian Marghoob, the PML-N might have more readily seen logic in the PTI’s simple request for a re-tallying of the votes. Eventually, Imran Khan’s workers had to depend on the experience of former Jamaat hands to force the issue for them. Via some street protest, it finally managed to have a recount, a three-day affair that was completed on Wednesday.
As happens quite often, the second count added to the total of the candidate who had originally been declared the winner. This one found that Mian Marghoob of the PML-N had actually been deprived of some 70 precious votes at the first reading. And it was this reconfirmation of the PML-N victory that spawned all these booing chants by the ungrateful to add to the PTI’s loss.
The detractors, the fun-makers, have got it all wrong one more time. The PTI’s loss is democracy’s gain. Just imagine if the outcome of the test forced by the PTI had been different. That could have really strengthened all these reservations that have all too politely been expressed over the conduct of the May 11 general election.
There were hundreds of national and provincial constituencies at stake in the general election in May. The PTI chose to list elections on many of these as suspect in its thick white paper. But eventually, it was PP-150 that was to provide the sampling so desperately required to vindicate a whole general poll. It was not about two candidates or two parties, but about a system’s ability to sustain democracy.
It should not thus bother people that some energy and other resources were spent on the marathon recount exercise undertaken earlier this week. Instead, felicitations are due to the recounting staff for having saved the country from disaster. They eventually managed to pull us out of a potential political marsh after long hours of suspense.
It could all have taken a turn towards a crisis. On the day the recount was to begin, the media reported four bags of ballots had gone missing. This delayed the process and when a recurrence of the disappearance was avoided the second day, that was a cause for some kind of a mini-celebration. The paper had to emphatically put in the point that the second day of the count had passed without “disturbance” — choosing to insert a word that is normally found in reports of polling and not recount exercises.
The seven-hour delay, allegedly because of the four missing bags on the first day, had added an element of the unknown to the task. But that it took the staff three days is another indicator of the sensitivity surrounding their assignment.
If the PTI workers were upset with what they called mismanagement on part of the Election Commission of Pakistan officials, even the more independent types were not thrilled by the news which said that when the recount began at 4pm on the first day, only eight out of a total of 147 presiding officers required to be present were there in the returning officer’s room.
Consequently, the votes cast in only those eight polling stations could be recounted. There were a few dozen ballot papers bearing an extra stamp or no stamp at all but lest anyone were allowed to bring the system into disrepute over these minor points, the dubious ballots were shared by both the PML-N candidate and his PTI challenger.
For a reminder of how close the system was to being endangered, the second day of the recount brought its own evidence. Even though the disturbing part had been overcome by then, the real threat to democracy reared its head in the form of a lead for PTI’s Mehr Wajid Azeem. At draw on the second day of the tense marathon, Azeem was ahead of Mian Marghoob by 414 votes with some 47 polling stations still to be counted.
That was a close shave which must entail an even closer watch on the proceedings. If the system has to be improved, the debate about its improvement must ignore the current bad losers and focus on the next election.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.