The Battle For Gilgit-Baltistan

7 June 2015
Rising Kashmir
Ershad Mahmud

Srinagar: All is set for Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly elections today (June 8). 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 election. Interestingly, 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, but it seems that the contest will largely spin between the three mainstream political parties i.e. Pakistan Muslim League-N, Pakistan People's Party and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Interestingly, only PML-N is contesting on the 24 constituencies while PPP fielded 22 candidates, PTI 20, Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen 16 and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F 10 respectively. In 2009, Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly was created through a presidential order and elections were held. The Pakistan Peoples 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. Traditionally, Peoples Party had been a popular party in the entire region since mid 1970's when the then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto introduced an 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 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 Right 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 Party introduced constitutional and administrative reforms but kept several major flaws in the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 which still haunts people of this region. It is an order, not an act of parliament, issued by the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs & 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 basics of the democratic spirit. Ministry of Kashmir Affairs & 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 last five years, 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 makes government in 'Azad Jammu and Kashmir' and Gilgit-Baltistan without much hassle. Now, PML-N is flexing muscles to establish its party government in Gilgit. To begin with, Prime Minster of Pakistan has appointed Chaudhary Barjees Tahir as the Governor of the Gilgit-Baltistan, who is already a federal minister for Kashmir Affairs and Giligt-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 Barjees Tahir 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 been a reasonable vote bank in the area and its regional President Hafiz ur Rehman is a dynamic politician who bravely faced ex-military ruler Parvez Musharraf's wrath but did not betray his party. He is a moderate who has always been working for the sectarian harmony and peace in the region. Though PML-N had never been a ruling party in Gilgit-Baltistan, but 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 respectively, and both were won by PML-N. Additionally, a large number of electable desisted from their parent parties to join the PML-N in quest for grabbing power. Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf was formally established a few months ago in GB. It has a 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 federal government-led authorities play its cards even slightly unfairly. It has already started questioning the election process. Recently, PTI has urged the Election Commission to immediately take note of the activities of governor GB and chairperson BISP and ensure that this pre-poll rigging is stopped immediately. Other parities, particularly, PPP and JUI-F also accuse the governor for pressing government officers to help PML-N to win polls. Apparently, the administration is neutral and visibly not taking sides hitherto, but top bureaucracy which comes from the federal government cannot even think of upsetting its bosses sitting in Islamabad. PML-N's prospects to emerge as the single largest party in the elections looks quite bright. Its ally in federal government JUI 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 the Gilgit-Baltistan and avoid unnecessary meddling into internal matters of the region. The writer is Islamabad-Rawalakot based freelance analyst. He can be reached at: ershad.mahmud@gmail.com