As the counting of ballot papers started for the Senate chairman election on Friday, a controversy erupted when seven votes apparently cast in favour of the Pakistan Democratic Movement's (PDM) joint candidate, Yousuf Raza Gilani, were rejected.
According to official results announced by the presiding officer, the PTI-backed candidate, Sadiq Sanjrani, received 48 votes, while Gilani obtained 42 votes. A total of 98 senators voted in the election.
If the seven rejected votes were added to Gilani's tally, his total would have amounted to 49 – one more than Sanjrani's.
Presiding officer Syed Muzaffar Hussain Shah said the seven votes were rejected because Gilani's name had been stamped on, which he ruled was against the instructions. An eighth vote was rejected because the senator concerned had stamped in front of the names of both candidates.
Elaborating on the correct procedure, Shah said the senators "had to put the stamp inside the box in front of the candidate's name". However, in all seven votes in question, the senators had stamped on Gilani's name instead, he added.
PPP's Farook H. Naek, who was also the polling agent for the opposition candidate (Gilani), challenged this view, saying that the instructions did not specify where the senator had to stamp as long as it was done inside the box. He pointed out that for the seven votes in question, all stamps were inside the box that had Gilani's name.
PTI's Mohsin Aziz, however, countered Naek's argument, reading from a copy of election rules he said were given to senators, saying that it was "written clearly that after obtaining the ballot paper, [the voter] should stamp in front of the candidate's name", not on the candidate's name itself.
The view was echoed by the presiding officer, who rejected Naek's objections. Had the seven votes been accepted, the opposition's candidate – Gilani – would have won by one vote.
What did the instructions actually say?
A picture of the instructions pasted inside the Upper House, a photo of which was shared by several opposition leaders, listed the steps to cast a valid vote, according to which:
- The names of the candidates are stated on the ballot paper. Stamp inside the box of your favoured candidate.
- While folding the ballot paper, make sure that the stamp's ink does not spread in any way to the box with the other candidate's name or some other place. Any other mark on the ballot paper will also make it invalid.
- Taking a picture of the ballot paper or showing it to someone else is forbidden.
- While folding the ballot paper, make sure that the government stamp on the back of the paper can be seen.
- After coming out of the booth, put your vote in the ballot box placed in front of the secretary senate.
What does the Elections Act say?
Journalists and politicians were quick to quote the Elections Act, 2017, pointing out that it had a different mechanism for stamping the ballot paper.
Section 90 (5) of the Elections Act states: "A ballot paper shall be deemed to have been marked in favour of a candidate if the whole or more than half of the area of the prescribed mark appears clearly within the space containing the name and symbol of that candidate and, where the prescribed mark is divided equally between two such spaces, the ballot paper shall be deemed invalid."
Journalist Benazir Shah, while sharing the paragraph from the Act, questioned whether it was also applicable to the Senate polls.
Television anchor Gharidah Farooqi also posted a picture of the sample ballot paper released by the PPP, saying the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had not written anywhere in its instructions that the name cannot be stamped.
PPP Senator Sherry Rehman was of the same view. "Nowhere do these rules pasted on the Senate polling stand say that your vote is rejected if it’s on the name. It is only rejected if the stamp goes out of the box or falls outside the line.
"The RO decided to reject 7 votes because [Gilani] had won by those votes at 50," she claimed.
PML-N's Ahsan Iqbal claimed that Yousuf Raza Gilani had won, having received 49 votes against the 48 bagged by the government-backed Sadiq Sanjrani, adding that the "announcement to declare the loser's victory was done by forcefully rejecting Yousuf Raza Gilani's seven votes".
Journalist Hasan Zaidi said there was "no box besides the candidates' name". Presiding officer Muzaffar Hussain Shah has "apparently made a biased decision", he added.
PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said that there were "multiple judgements of courts available where stamp on the name of candidate were held to be valid".
"Election is again being stolen from us in broad day light," the PPP senator claimed.