The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Tuesday accepted PML-N leader Miftah Ismail's application for a recount in the NA-249 Karachi by-election, ordering that recounting of the votes be done on May 6.
It directed leaders of political parties who had contested the by-election to reach the office of the returning officer (RO) at 9am on May 6 (Thursday) for the recount.
The ECP reserved its verdict on the application earlier today.
Reacting to the decision, PML-N President and Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif said he was "happy to learn" that Ismail's application was accepted.
"The narrow difference in votes of the top contestants necessitated this in the interest of transparency. Credibility of vote is a sure foundation of democracy," he tweeted.
Meanwhile, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said his party "welcomed the new precedent" by the ECP of allowing a "constituency-wide recount without specific complaints".
"Many seats from 2018 [general elections] fall within 5% threshold & candidates have not been given this chance. Once ECP order is out PPP will consider going to ECP for recounts in all such seats," Bilawal added.
During today's hearing, Ismail's lawyer, Sultan Akram Raja, contended that the signatures of presiding officers of 167 polling stations were missing from Form-45 while the party's polling agents were also not given Form-46.
He argued that Form-46 was just as important as Form-45 according to the Justice Nasirul Mulk Commission's report. "Presiding officers are bound to provide Form-45 and Form-46 to polling agents. Signatures were absent from the Form-45 given by the presiding officers."
He also asked the ECP to investigate "irregularities" in the April 29 by-election.
Raja said the PML-N would submit a separate application for re-polling in the NA-249 constituency. "Recounting of votes in the NA-249 by-election is our first demand. If we are not satisfied, then we can also make further demands."
He argued that actions taken in 180 polling stations after the voting had ended were not in accordance with the law, stressing that recounting was not enough and the ECP would have to "intervene".
"The absence of verified Form-45 and Form-46 has made the entire election suspicious."
PPP lawyer Lateef Khosa argued that the PML-N did not raise any objection on any form during the polling on April 29. "It is not enough to say there were irregularities. It needs to be identified where and what irregularities occurred," he said.
Returning officers were not bound to accept applications for recounting, he claimed.
The ECP member from Punjab, Altaf Qureshi, observed that the case was against the RO's orders and not about polling stations to which Khosa replied that Ismail had submitted a "general" application to the RO.
"There is a tradition of not accepting defeat in our country," he added. "It seems Miftah Ismail had already prepared an application which stated that the manner in which the results were announced was suspicious."
He further said that it was the RO's job to release the results, questioning whether he was waiting for a stay order from the ECP.
"PML-N objected to Form-45 at 2:30am in the night after being defeated," Khosa said.
The ECP's member from Punjab then questioned whether the PPP candidate in the by-election was satisfied with the RO's order.
Khosa contended that the RO had termed PML-N's application as "inappropriate", adding that the ECP could not order recounting in the constituency because of a "lack of concrete reasons".
Meanwhile, the lawyer for the Pak Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) said that there was "no benefit" of a recount for the people of the constituency. At this, ECP member Qureshi said that if the PSP was serious, it would have submitted an application to the Election Commission.
"We sent several emails to the ECP but received no answer," the lawyer replied.
Qureshi assured him the Election Commission would hear the PSP's application when it was received.
The chief election commissioner emphasised that "no irregularity of any kind would be tolerated."
A representative for the banned Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — which came third in the by-election — also appeared in front of the ECP during the hearing today.
He informed the Commission that polling agents of the party were "thrown out" of the polling stations and presented a ballot paper which he claimed had been found in the street.
Lawyer for the PTI — which came in at fifth place — said that polling agents were not given more than 70 Form-45.
"It is possible that your polling agents did not sign Form-45?" the ECP member from Sindh questioned. To this, the PTI lawyer replied that it was not possible that more than 70 people did not sign the form.
"Not even one Form-45 was given to polling agents," he argued.
Lawyer for independent candidate Masood Khan said that recounting was not necessary when the margin of victory was less than five per cent.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing today, Ismail alleged that there was a "big irregularity" in the NA-249 by-election because 167 out of 249 forms did not bear signatures.
He also claimed that there was a "substantial difference" in the number of votes mentioned in the forms the ECP had given and the forms obtained by the PML-N from other sources.
"We also said neither us nor any other candidate got Form-46 which is very necessary for accounting of Form-45 — how many ballots were used, how many were [provided by the ECP] — so no books can be stolen and presiding officers cannot add votes themselves before sealing the ballots."
The PML-N leader expressed the hope that the Election Commission's decision would be in his favour after which the party would decide how to proceed further.
PPP's Qadir Khan Mandokhail had won the NA-249 by-election in Karachi by a small margin after securing 16,156 votes, according to the provisional results released on Friday while Ismail had come in second with 15,473 votes.
The PML-N and the PTI had cried foul and subsequently rejected the results.
The ECP had accepted Ismail's application for a recount on Saturday.
"The margin of victory is less than five per cent of the total votes polled in the constituency or 10,000 votes whichever is less in accordance with the provisions of Section 95 (5) of the (Elections) Act. The Commission is satisfied that prima facie case exists for intervention, and therefore stay the consolidation process," the ECP had said in its order while accepting Ismail's application.
On Sunday, Ismail submitted an application to the chief election commissioner asking him to place election material, including ballot papers, under the supervision of the Army or Rangers.