The battle for Gilgit-Baltistan
By: Ershad Mahmud
The Pakistan Muslim League-N’s chances of emerging as the single largest party in elections look quite bright, The PPP is no more a choice.
All is set for Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly elections on June 8, 2015. The electioneering has already picked up pace following Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s day-long visit to the region last month wherein he announced the establishment of two new districts as well as a few other major development projects besides distributing laptops amongst the university students. Other leaders, particularly from the Pakistan People’s Party and Imran Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, have also visited the region to garner public support.
In 2009, Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly was created through a presidential order and elections were held. The Pakistan People’s Party won the elections and completed a five-year term in office. On December 13, 2014, an interim government was set up with a 12-member caretaker cabinet to conduct free and fair elections.
Over six hundred thousand people are going to polling stations to elect 24 legislators. Subsequently, eight members will be indirectly elected, i.e. three technocrats and five women. Nearly 445 candidates are taking part in the elections.
Interestingly, the Chief Election Commissioner of Gilgit-Baltistan barred 56 leaders of the banned religious outfits from contesting the election. Although 17 political parties are contesting elections, it seems the contest will largely spin between three mainstream political parties — the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Interestingly, only the PML-N is contesting on all the 24 constituencies while the PPP and PTI fielded candidates in 22 constituencies each. Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen is contesting in 16 and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F in 10 constituencies.
Traditionally, the People’s Party had been a popular party in the entire region since mid 1970s when then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto introduced administrative reform and abolished draconian law commonly known as Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). However, anti-incumbency factor, internal party feuds and poor performance in the previous national elections made the PPP a less attractive choice for the voters.
Ironically, the local leadership of the party never cared for its public image. Former chief minister Mehdi Shah spent most of his time in the luxurious Gilgit-Baltistan House located in Islamabad on the taxpayers’ money. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in its fact finding mission report, mentioned that several hundred government jobs were sold by the Mehdi Shah led-government who made huge illegal money. He used to attribute his poor performance to Zardari House, where key decisions have been taken without much consultation about the region.
Additionally, the Pakistan People’s Party introduced constitutional and administrative reforms but kept several major flaws in the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 which still haunt the people of this region. It is an order, not an act of the Parliament, issued by the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, which lacks due constitutional cover.
The elected government or legislative assembly has no power to amend this order which runs counter to the democratic spirit. Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan has been entrusted to make any amendment in this order while the elected representative’s jurisdiction is merely superficial, at least in the sphere of legislation. Rhetoric aside, during the last five-year term in office, the PPP government has not made any tangible effort to amend the order or bring reforms in the governance structure to further empower government and citizens.
On the other hand, it has been a trend in Pakistan that whichever party rules Islamabad forms the governments in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan without any hassle. Now, the PML-N is flexing muscles to establish its party government in Gilgit-Baltistan. To begin with, the prime minister has appointed Chaudhary Barjees Tahir as the governor of Gilgit-Baltistan, who is already a Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan. Doubtlessly, the entire administration in Gilgit is dancing to his tunes.
Nearly all the political parties and civil society actors resisted the appointment of the federal minister as governor but to no avail. This move is interpreted as a first step towards ensuring installation of the PML-N government in Gilgit.
Pakistan Muslim League-N has always maintained a reasonable vote bank in the area and its regional president, Hafiz ur Rehman, is a dynamic politician who bravely faced ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf’s wrath but did not betray his party. He is a moderate politician always working for sectarian harmony and peace in the region.
Though the PML-N had never been a ruling party in Gilgit-Baltistan, during the last two years, it invested considerable time and energy in the region. It increased quota for the GB’s students in the Punjab and federal educational institutions which enhanced its approval rating among the young people of the remote regions. It also provided generous funding for the victims of the Attabad Lake disaster.
In 2013, two by-elections were held in Ghanche and Skardu constituencies, and both were won by the PML-N. Additionally, a large number of electables left their parent parties to join the PML-N in quest for grabbing power.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf was formally established a few months ago in GB. It has reasonable following and a dedicated cadre of workers, but it is not well-entrenched in the local politics so far. Therefore, it has little chance to bag more than a few seats. However, it has the potential and experience to put a stigma on the whole election process if the federal government-led authorities play their cards unfairly. It has already started questioning the election process. Recently, the PTI has urged the Election Commission to immediately take note of the activities of GB governor and chairperson BISP and ensure that this pre-poll rigging is stopped immediately. Other parties, particularly the PPP and the JUI-F, also accuse the governor of pressing the government officers to help the PML-N win polls.
Apparently, the administration is neutral and visibly not taking sides hitherto, but top bureaucracy who comes from the federal government cannot even think of upsetting its bosses in Islamabad.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N’s chances of emerging as the single largest party in the elections look quite bright. The JUI, its ally in the federal government, might be able to win one or two seats, which eventually strengthens the PML-N position. It is the responsibility of Islamabad to ensure free, fair and acceptable elections for all stakeholders in Gilgit-Baltistan and avoid unnecessary meddling into internal matters of the region.
The writer is Islamabad/Rawalakot based analyst. He may be reached at:email@example.com
Originally published in “The News On Sunday”