Gilgit-Baltistan goes to the polls tomorrow to elect members to its legislative assembly. The first successful and democratic transition from one government to the other in the post-2009 set-up makes this election particularly important.
Election fever is running high in the region. GB is flooded with party flags, while in the run-up to the polls there have been frequent rallies and public gatherings. In fact, the political ‘great debates’ in Hunza and Skardu — titled ‘Why should we vote for you?’ — have brought rival contestants to one table to share their election manifestos in front of voters.
The videos of these debates were broadcast through local cable networks to make them accessible to a larger audience. Such democratic steps have rarely been witnessed elsewhere in Pakistan.
Visits by opposing contestants to each others’ offices in many constituencies and disciplined public gatherings also reflect political maturity. The high literacy rate of GB can be construed as one of the factors behind such a political culture. Despite remaining far from the national electoral process, the region has proved its zeal for democracy.
The previous PPP government did not quite meet the aspirations of the people. Charges of corruption — particularly in the education department — and nepotism have affected the party’s reputation locally. While the PML-N is expected to gain as it heads the government in the centre, new political entrants in the region, such as the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Majlis Wahdat Muslimeen (MWM), are set to take advantage of the PPP’s poor performance.
Both parties have the potential not only to damage the vote bank of other candidates but also to win a few seats. The reason for MWM’s popularity is the large Shia population residing in GB. Apart from demographics, the MWM has made efforts to foster religious harmony between the Shia and Sunni communities, which has improved its graph.
Real empowerment of Gilgit-Baltistan remains elusive.
PTI is contesting elections in GB for the first time. The party has vowed to bring development and give rights to the people through local bodies. Criticism of the PML-N’s policies and allegations of pre-poll rigging have remained the focus of the PTI’s campaign in the region. The N-League, on its part, has put forward the agenda of GB’s infrastructure development.
The region lacks modern infrastructure and facilities and heavily relies on the federal budget. Due to non-representation in the national legislature, GB is also not part of the NFC Award, which provides financial allocations to the provinces.
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Annual funds allocated to GB by Islamabad are insufficient for such a vast mountainous terrain.
The PPP has again pledged to improve the living conditions of the common people, but the party’s lacklustre performance in the previous term will weigh heavily against it. Nationalist leader Baba Jan has shown promise in Hunza. The mishandling of his case by the state has increased support for the leader.
Despite all the activity in the run-up to the polls, real empowerment of this little-developed region remains elusive. When the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order was announced in 2009, the GB Council was created along the pattern of the AJK Council. This body has come under considerable criticism by local leaders. The GB Council is a powerful unelected body headed by the prime minister.
Though the presidential order of 2009 has transferred some decision-making powers to locally elected members and increased legislative subjects of the assembly, important subjects such as administration and revenue remain in the council’s domain. The assembly can only pass the budget but control over financial matters and revenue comes under the council’s authority. Thus Islamabad is accused of keeping tight control over GB’s resources and the package is termed cosmetic.
Since important administrative and financial decisions rest with the council, the elections to the legislative assembly will provide only restricted opportunities to the locals to determine their fate. The primary demand of the population is self-rule and autonomy. The freedom struggle of the people of GB was directed at liberating the region from Kashmir and associating it with Pakistan. Yet in the years after independence, GB was still associated with its former master and denied its political rights.
Ironically, in 1974 through the Interim Constitution Act, government institutions were established in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. This act provided for self-rule and a constitution for AJK. The region is relatively independent in its decision-making and only defence, foreign relations and currency are maintained by Pakistan. GB, however, is still deprived of this right.
The real transfer of powers to GB from Islamabad — as in the case of AJK — is one of the ways to address the question of self-rule. Unless the assembly and the elected members are given the power to take decisions about their region, elections would fail to truly empower Gilgit-Baltistan.
The writer is a senior research fellow at Karachi University.
Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2015