LAHORE / ISLAMABAD: Asma Jahangir defeated Ahmad Awais on Wednesday by 38 votes in one of the most hotly-contested elections ever to the presidency of the Supreme Court Bar Association. It was a double victory not just for progressive forces but also for women rights as Ms Jahangir, Pakistan’s face internationally for human rights, waded through an intense and at times ugly campaign to lay claim to the presidency of SCBA. And by doing so, she has become the first woman to lead the most prestigious association of the legal community.
It was a fight to the finish. Ms Jahangir scraped through with a narrow lead over Mr Awais who was supported by the powerful ‘Professional Group’ led by Hamid Khan. Ms Jahangir enjoyed the support of many former SCBA presidents and was backed by some of the leading lights of the lawyers’ movement such as Ali Ahmed Kurd, Justice (retd) Tariq Mahmood and Munir A. Malik.
According to unofficial results, Ms Jahangir got 834 votes as opposed to 796 obtained by Mr Awais, a candidate of the ‘Professional Group’.
More than 1,700 members of the SCBA cast votes out of a total membership of 2,017 across the country.
While the elections were held at a time when two lawyers’ groups are at loggerheads with each other over the bar’s proximity with the executive and the judiciary, the results from across the country reflected just how close the fight was.
Ms Jahangir led Mr Awais by ten votes in all-important Lahore where she got 419 votes as opposed to 409 grabbed by her main rival. A similar margin in Karachi helped her seal the contest, the score this time being 114 against 104.
Ms Jahangir won significant battles over Mr Awais in Abbotabad (17-11), Peshawar (47-33) and Quetta (42-29). She lost in Islamabad by 12 votes (124-136), in Bahawalpur by two votes (27-29) and Multan where Mr Awais won with the barest possible margin (45-44).
The third candidate, Mohammad Ikram Chaudhry who was almost written off before the polls, managed to a secure a tally in three figures, with 127 votes.
There was tension in the air as lawyers waited for the results following the polling that took place between 8.30am and 5pm. The first unofficial results came from Multan, and the 45-44 scorecard in favour of Mr Awais set the tone for a thriller the electronic media revelled in.
As the channels built up the suspense and the two candidates went neck-and-neck, the outcome eventually hinged on the count in Karachi which took quite a while to sort out the 231 votes cast there. By that time Lahore, which has traditionally decided the contest given that almost 50 per cent of the more than 2,100 SCBA voters are enrolled here, had been long done.
In the first count in Lahore, Ms Jahangir was said to have won 411 votes against Ms Awais’s 380. A recount cut Ms Jahangir’s lead from 31 to a mere 10, and checked the celebrations of her supporters and caused them a few extra anxious moments. In the event, the result of an equally close race in Karachi extended her lead to 38. The margin was smaller than the last SCBA polled in 2009 when Qazi Anwar of the powerful Professional Group had overcome Barrister Baacha by 40-odd votes.
Asma Jahangir’s panel also won the seat of the SCBA secretary which went to Qamar Zaman Qureshi.
On the four seats of vice-presidents, Jahanzaib Khan Jadoon was elected from Balochistan, Muhammad Arif Khan from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Zubair Khalid from Punjab and K.A Wahab from Sindh.
M. Saliheen Moghal was elected as additional secretary of the bar.
Ms Jahangir congratulated her supporters saying her win was the victory of those who had been fighting for the rule of law in the country. The new SCBA president told reporters that she would work to end the conflict between state institutions and that the bar would not allow anyone to achieve vested interests in the name of rule of law. “All institutions should work within their constitutional limits,” she said.
Ms Jahangir condemned a vilification drive she had been subjected to in the run-up to the election -- in reference to an anonymous pamphlet aimed at her character assassination as also with regards to the public allegations by her opponents who sought to paint her as a government-sponsored candidate.
They had alleged that Ms Jahangir was being backed by the PPP government in an effort to hijack the pro-judiciary lawyers’ movement -- a charge she had denied.
President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan Muslim League-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif, Muttahida Qaumi Movement chief Altaf Hussain and PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi congratulated Ms Jahangir on her victory.
In his message, President Zardari said he expected that Ms Jahangir’s election would add to the prestige of lawyers.
The defeated candidate Ahmad Awais was brief in his response to the election results. He told reporters that lawyers had a right to choose their leader and that he accepted the defeat with an open heart.
However, Hamid Khan, the leader of the Professional Group, repeated some of the campaign allegations when, in a television interview, he blamed the outcome of the election on the money Federal Law Minister Babar Awan had been throwing around. “Madam Asma will now have to prove that she is not the government’s nominee,” he commented and prayed that the new SCBA president would prove equal to the big challenge she was faced with.