Vote count in several cities in Gilgit-Baltistan began after polling, in what was arguably the most hotly contested election the region has ever seen, came to an end at 5pm on Sunday.
In Skardu, PTI supporters were seen celebrating party candidate Zakariya Khan's victory, which has yet to be confirmed, in GBLA-7 Skardu-I. According to unofficial results, Khan secured 5,290 votes while his competitor, PPP's Syed Mehdi Shah, got 4,114.
Meanwhile, in Ghanche-I independent candidate Mushtaq Hussain reportedly defeated PTI's Ibrahim Sanai behind with 6,051 votes. The latter got 4,945 votes. PPP candidate Mohammad Jaffar secured 2,615 votes.
Independent candidate Wazir Saleem was leading the race with 3,380 votes in GBLA-9 Skardu-III, followed by PTI's Fida Nashad who secured 1,213 votes, according to unconfirmed results.
PPP's Engineer Ismail was ahead in GBLA-24, Ghanche-III with 6,206 votes. He is followed by PTI's Shamsuddin who has reportedly secured 5,361 votes.
Voting process in the region began at 8am and continued until 5pm without any interval. Polling in most constituencies went smoothly throughout the day. In Gilgit city, women and the elderly showed their enthusiasm and turned up at polling stations to cast their votes. However, in Ghizer, Hunza, Sost and Baltistan heavy snowfall continued, restricting citizens to their houses.
Polling in one constituency was postponed, according to Radio Pak.
As many as 330 candidates, including four women, are vying for the 24 general seats in the third legislative assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Pictures and videos showed citizens lined up outside polling stations, wearing face masks and observing social distancing to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Many also braved heavy snowfall in the upper areas of GB to cast their vote.
Hundreds of passengers, headed to GB to cast their votes, were also stranded near Bisham since last night due to a blockade on the Karakoram Highway.
There were also power outages reported at some polling stations, slowing down the voting process as staff used torches to register voter data.
According to directives issued by the GB government, voters were required to maintain a distance of six feet from each other. Meanwhile, 8,000 bags containing face covers, masks, gloves and sanitisers were dispatched for staff at polling stations.
More than 15,000 security personnel from GB, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan were deployed at polling stations.
Over half of the polling stations have already been categorised sensitive. Out of 1,141 polling stations, 577 have been declared sensitive and 297 highly sensitive.
PPP demands disqualification of PTI candidates
Meanwhile, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who has been in the region for weeks and leading the party's political campaign, said that the election commission must not fail the people and should ensure that "every vote is cast and counted".
"The people's enthusiasm is a testament to their commitment to democracy," he said.
PPP Secretary General Nayyar Bukhari also demanded that candidates of the ruling PTI be disqualified from the election.
"The announcement of development projects during an election is a clear sign of rigging. The presence of government ministers in GB is tantamount to influencing the election," he said in a statement, adding that PTI candidates from areas where projects have been announced should be disqualified.
"Efforts to influence the election are proving fears of rigging," he said.
Addressing a press conference earlier in the day, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi responded to accusations by the opposition of pre-poll rigging.
"Parties win and lose, it is a part of politics. But the people's trust in the election process must be maintained," he said. He added that the opposition had gotten a "full opportunity" to campaign amid a peaceful environment.
"There were no clashes or fights, the campaign was completed. According to my assessment, their expectations might not be fulfilled. But if they make noise about rigging, it would not be correct," he said while speaking to the media in Multan.
Information Minister Shibli Faraz added that the people of GB were exercising their democratic right to vote.
"Their passion illustrates their desire for change. Using the power of their vote, the people of GB will reject incompetent rulers that have never prioritised the people's welfare," he said.
The polls assumed much significance this time as the two main opposition parties held a vigorous campaign. These elections could serve as a test case for the ruling PTI as well as the two opposition party leaders — Bilawal and Maryam Nawaz.
With political temperature hitting boiling point, leaders of the three major parties organised public gatherings in various parts of the region, firing salvos against each other while ignoring around 100 notices issued by the GB Election Commission over violation of code of conduct.
Bilawal, who stayed in the region for weeks, has been leading the PPP's campaign.
Prime Minister Imran Khan also made an appearance in Gilgit to attend a ceremony held on the occasion of the region's Independence Day where he announced that the area would soon be given a provisional status of province.
Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan Ali Amin Gandapur, Communications Minister Murad Saeed as well as PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz also actively participated in the campaign.
According to political analysts, a tough battle is expected between PTI and PPP.
For the upcoming polls, which were earlier scheduled to be held in August but were postponed due to the pandemic, PPP has fielded 23 candidates, while 21 aspirants represent the PML-N.
The PTI has entered a seat adjustment arrangement with Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen on two constituencies.
The party has also been strengthened with the recent joining of local leaders. Seasoned politician Fida Mohammad Nashad is one of them and has been awarded the party ticket.
Nashad had served as the legislative assembly’s speaker after the 2015 elections. Other former PML-N ministers and assembly members who have joined PTI include Mohammad Iqbal, Haider Khan and Ibrahim Sanai.
A recent Gallup Pakistan survey showed that PTI was in a strong position followed by the PPP.
Read: Imran confident of winning GB polls
Interesting contests in some constituencies
In GBLA-2 (Gilgit), former chief minister Hafizur Rehman of the PML-N and PPP’s Jamil Ahmed faced each other for the third time.
In 2015, Rahman had defeated Ahmed, while in 2009 both lost to Deedar Ali, an independent candidate.
In GBLA-10, Wazir Hassan of the PTI and Mohammad Sikandar Ali of the Islami Tehreek Pakistan (ITP), who have also been contesting against each other since 2009, are in the run again.
In 2009, Wazir Hassan, who was a PPP candidate back then, defeated independent Raja H. Khan Maqnoon and Mohammad Sikandar of the PML-Q. In 2015, Mohammad Sikandar contested the polls on Islami Tehreek Pakistan’s ticket and won. Nasir Abdullah of MWM was runner-up while Wazir Hassan (PPP) and Najaf Ali of PTI were also in the race.
This time, Wazir Hassan is a PTI candidate and is facing Wazir Mohammad Khan and Mohammad Sikandar.
Chief of Baltistan National Front (BNF) Nawaz Khan Naji, an ardent supporter for the region’s autonomy, remained successful both in 2009 and 2015 polls. He is vying for a seat from the GBLA-19 constituency once again.
In GBLA-7 (Skardu) Mohammad Abbas of the ITP will be competing against his uncle, Raja Zakria Khan, who has been fielded by PTI. Others in the contest are former GB chief minister Syed Mehdi Shah who had won the seat back in 2009 but lost it in 2015.
Elections have been delayed in GBLA-3 following the death of PTI Gilgit-Baltistan President retired Justice Jaffer Shah from coronavirus.
PTI has now given the ticket to Jaffer Shah’s son after facing severe criticism over its earlier decision to grant ticket to former minister Iqbal, who left PML-N and joined PTI.
Despite joining PTI formally, Iqbal would be contesting the election as an independent candidate.
Meanwhile, Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqh-i-Jafria extended its support to PPP in the Gilgit-Baltistan elections.
Additional input by Nadir Guramani