Although autumn has brought cold winds to Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), political temperatures are soaring as polling day for GB Assembly (November 15) draws closer. Leaders of all major political parties, including the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), are in GB to win over voters with their promises.
Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly is an elected body consisting of 33 members, of which 24 are directly elected by the people, while six seats are reserved for women and three for technocrats. Each tenure is for five years.
All arrangements have been rolled out for a free, fair and transparent election in the region. According to the GB Election Commission Office, at least 1,234 polling stations have been established for all constituencies, where basic amenities including electricity, safe water, toilets for the polling staff and voters at all polling stations have been ensured.
As many as 330 contenders, including four women, have been approved by the Election Commission for 24 seats of the assembly. Of these, 127 candidates are affiliated with various political parties while 200 independents are hoping to emerge as victorious.
Election on one seat – GBA-2 (Gilgit) – has been postponed and scheduled on November 22 owing to the death of PTI’s GB president, Justice (r) Syed Jaffar Shah. The deceased was awarded the party’s ticket to contest the election, but he was infected with coronavirus and died on October 11.
Among 1,234 polling stations, 415 have been declared highly sensitive, 339 sensitive.
As many as 745,364 people have been verified by the Election Commission to exercise their right to vote to their representatives from all 24 constituencies of Gilgit-Baltistan. Of these, 405,350 are male voters while 339,993 are female.
The former government led by the PML-N concluded its five-year term on June 24 and handed the charge over to an interim government led by incumbent Chief Minister Mir Afzal Khan to run the region till the formation of a new government.
The people of GB have often backed the party in federal government. When the PPP was in federal government, it was also triumphant in GB in the 2009 election. The people of the region also voted in favor of the PML-N in 2015, when Nawaz Sharif’s party succeeded in 2013 general elections in the center. However, it is not certain whether the PTI will succeed in the 2020 elections.
Historically, when British rulers left the region on July 16, 1947 before the Partition of the sub-continent, and the people of the region defeated the Dogra regime, the Pakistani government took administrative control by imposing Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR).
The FCR remained functional till 1972. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto demolished the FCR and introduced some administrative reforms in the area. According to senior lawyer Ehsan Ali, the FCR was abolished because of a powerful movement by the people of the area in 1971. “Hundreds of people took to the streets and staged powerful demonstrations demanding the abolishment of the FCR. The protests became violent. One person was killed and many others injured in a stand-off between law enforcement agencies and protestors,” he told The Friday Times.
In the 2015 election, the PML-N bagged over
15 seats and succeeded in forming a government. During their regime, many development projects were approved
In 1970, under General Yahya’s military regime, a Northern Areas Advisory Council was set up compromising 16 seats with three-year terms. In 1987, General Ziaul Haq jacked up the tenure of the council from three to four years. In 1994, Benazir Bhutto, through a reform package, upgraded the advisory council by ramping up the number of seats from 16 to 24 and the tenure to five years. Two women were also facilitated in the council on reserved seats. The name of the council was also altered from Northern Areas Advisory Council to Northern Areas Legislative Council.
From 1994 to 2009, the deputy chief executive was the head of the council from the Northern Areas, while the minister for Kashmir and GB affairs remained chief executive.
Following the 18th amendments under Asif Ali Zardari’s era, the federal cabinet on August 29, 2009 unanimously approved the new Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Ordinance 2009, giving more internal and political autonomy to the area. The name of the region was changed to Gilgit-Baltistan from ‘Northern Areas’ through this ordinance, and Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly came into existence.
As November 15 drew near, political campaigns reached their peak in the region. Every party and its contenders organized large demonstrations to win the hearts of voters. At least 14 political parties are participating in the 2020 election.
According to political analysts and senior journalists, a close contest is expected between the PTI and PPP. However, they were reluctant about forecasting any particular winner, owing to the large number of independent candidates in the race.
The PPP has remained a favorite party in Gilgit-Baltistan since Bhutto’s era, as it brought many reforms for the region with the provision of wheat subsidy. The PPP managed to win only one seat for the GB Assembly in 2015 election as the party remained under fire for not maintaining law and order in the area and allegations of corruption during their regime [2010-2015].
This year, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari kicked off the political campaign from district Ghanche. He is visiting every constituency in GB and meeting with religious scholars and stakeholders. He is citing a portion of the PPP’s manifesto for GB that was presented during their 2018 general election campaign.
In the 2015 election, the PML-N bagged over 15 seats and succeeded in forming a government. During their regime, many development projects were approved. However, key ministers and members of the assembly formed a forward bloc under former chief minister Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman, calling him a ‘one-man show.’ With completion of its tenure, many former ministers including Ibrahim Sanai, Fida Muhammad Nashad, Dr Iqbal Major Amin and other PML-N’s stalwarts changed loyalties by joining the PTI. Political observers say the party is not in a position to compete with the PTI and PPP. However, the PML-N may win two or three seats.
PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz Sharif also stayed for a week in GB and tried to catch the attention of voters towards the party’s candidates. She also addressed various political gatherings in all divisions and made many promises about granting constitutional rights.
According to political pundits, if a free, fair and transparent election is carried out, the PTI will have a hard time winning the majority of seats. “In the past, people of GB always voted for the ruling party. However, internal politics of the party’s provincial office bearers is creating issues for the candidates,” they reasoned, adding that no relief has been granted by the PTI after assuming charge in center to the people of GB.
Federal Ministers Ali Amin Gandapur, Muraad Saeed and the SAPM on Overseas Pakistanis Zulfi Bukhari are also busy campaigning in GB. Although the PTI succeeded in bringing “electables” to the party, no political pundits are ready to claim a good position for the PTI in GB.
Maryam Nawaz of the PML-N left GB on Thursday after completing her election campaigning, while Bilawal of the PPP and Federal Minister Ali Amin Gandapur will stay in GB till November 15 (polling day).
Senior journalists Faheem Akhtar and human rights activist Israruddin Israr say parties have missed underlying issues like women rights, political rights, drinking water, and health problems in their manifestos. They said that every political party is trying to get the public’s sympathies for point scoring. “No party has incorporated actual issues of GB in their manifesto.”
Meanwhile, security arrangements have also been chalked out for polling day. According to the IGP office, 13,481 policemen will be deployed at all polling stations across GB. To ensure law and order in the region, at least 3,000 police forces from Punjab, 2,000 from KP, 500 from Sindh and 200 from Balochistan have also reached GB.
Every party will wrap up their campaigning on Friday night.
The writer is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted on Twitter: @NisarAli586