ELECTIONEERING in Gilgit-Baltistan is in full swing as the region prepares to go to the polls on Sunday. Nearly all of the country’s mainstream parties have hit the campaign trail hard, dispatching their top guns to the area in order to woo voters. The PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the PML-N’s Maryam Nawaz as well as federal ministers Ali Amin Gandapur and Murad Saeed have all addressed rallies, while the prime minister himself was earlier in the region to boost the chances of forming a PTI government in the northern region. While the Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Court had earlier ordered all ‘public office holders’ to leave the region for ‘violating’ the election’s code of conduct, this prohibition was overturned by the region’s Supreme Appellate Court, allowing the parties to continue their campaigns full throttle. Like in the rest of Pakistan, election rallies have been full of vitriol against opponents, as well as promising the moon to local voters.

Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan has usually voted for the party running the federal government in Islamabad to ensure the region gains maximum benefits. However, it remains to be seen whether this will still be the case, considering the PTI’s difficulties in running the federal administration, and the opposition’s sustained attempt to bring down the government. But beyond the rhetoric, whichever party comes to power in the region will have to deliver to the people, and respond to their legitimate demands. Gilgit-Baltistan’s young, educated electorate is sick of lollipops and wants to see progress on integrating their area with the rest of Pakistan. The PTI has said it will grant provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. Other parties have made similar promises. Indeed, this option should definitely be considered, without prejudice to the Kashmir dispute. The fact is that the party that takes power in Gilgit-Baltistan must do a lot to bring good governance, jobs, health and education to the region. It must not be ruled by remote control from Islamabad and the elected regional assembly should be empowered to take major decisions. The area must be viewed beyond the lens of geopolitics; residents of the region participate in social, political and economic activities across the country. Therefore, it is their right to have provisional representation in the national legislature, as well as an empowered assembly in their own region which can address the local population’s issues. The winner of Sunday’s election will have to include these points on its agenda.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2020

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