(Clockwise) People queue at a polling station in Skardu during the elections for Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly on Sunday. A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Gilgit. A returning officer opens the seal of a ballot box after the end of polling time. Votes are being counted at the Fatima Jinnah Women College polling station. — AFP / APP
(Clockwise) People queue at a polling station in Skardu during the elections for Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly on Sunday. A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Gilgit. A returning officer opens the seal of a ballot box after the end of polling time. Votes are being counted at the Fatima Jinnah Women College polling station. — AFP / APP

• PPP, PML-N cry foul
• Most voters, election staff observe SOPs

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) was on the driving seat in the most hotly-contested elections ever held in strategically-located Gilgit-Baltistan on Sunday, according to incomplete and unofficial results, with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) complaining about some irregularities and alleged rigging during the polling and counting process which mostly remained peaceful.

Till filing of this report, the unofficial results from only nine constituencies had been received, with PTI and independents winning three each, PPP two seats and Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM) having a seat adjustment with the PTI winning in one constituency.

Out of the remaining 14 constituencies, the PTI was leading in five, independents in four and the PPP in three, whereas the candidates belonging to the PML-N and the JUI-F were leading in one constituency each.

The PTI workers celebrated the victory of its candidate Raja Zakaria Khan who defeated former chief minister Syed Mehdi Shah of the PPP on GBLA-7 Skardu-I seat. According to unofficial results, the PTI candidate bagged 5,290 votes, followed by Syed Mehdi Shah 4,114 votes and Muhammad Akbar of the PML-N only 196 votes.

The second seat won by the PTI is GBLA-11 Kharmang where its candidate Syed Amjad Ali defeated independent candidate Syed Mohsin Rizvi.

Mohammad Kazim of the MWM won the GBLA-8 Skardu-II seat by defeating PPP’s Syed Muhammad Ali Shah after a tough contest.

The three independents who bagged victories are: Nasir Ali Khan (GBLA-10 Skardu-IV), Javed Ali Manwa (GBLA-5 Nagar-II) and Mushtaq Hussain (GBLA-22 Ghanche-I).

Javed Ali Manawa was an aspirant of the PTI ticket and contested the election independently when the party awarded ticket to Rizwan Ali of the MWM after reaching an agreement with the latter. The MWM candidate stood third in the race and another independent candidate Zulfiqar Ali Murad remained runner-up.

The PPP has so far managed to win GBLA-4 Nagar-I and GBLA-24 Ghanche-III seats. In Nagar, PPP’s Amjad Hussain defeated Ayub Waziri of Islami Tehreek Pakistan, whereas Zulfiqar Ali of the PTI remained third in the race.

In Ghanche, PPP’s Muhammad Ismail beat PTI’s Syed Shamsuddin with a margin of just 843 votes.

The formerly ruling PML-N was leading only in GBLA-21 Ghizer-III where its candidate Ghulam Muhammad was marginally ahead of PTI’s Raja Jahanzeb and PPP’s Muhammad Ayub Shah.

Elections have been delayed in GBLA-3 following the death of PTI GB president retired Justice Jaffer Shah due to coronavirus.

Earlier, despite the threat of Covid-19 and harsh weather conditions in some upper areas, the GB people voted in a complete discipline manner with no reports of violence coming from any part of the region where out of 1,141 polling stations, 577 had been declared sensitive and 297 highly sensitive.

Though the polling process remained peaceful, reports about clashes came later in the evening from different parts of Skardu and Ghizer at the time of counting of votes. A clash erupted between the workers of the PPP and PTI in Skardu when the counting was still going on. The PPP alleged that the PTI workers had attacked the party office and as a result seven of its workers received injuries.

Late in the night, the PPP alleged that the returning officers were not announcing the results despite completion of the counting process. A senior PPP leader even alleged that polling was continuing in one of the polling stations at Ghizer till 11pm and after that the PTI workers had taken away the ballot boxes from the site.

As the results started pouring in from various polling stations, a number of federal ministers took to Twitter to castigate the opposition parties for raising rigging allegations. Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry was quoted by a TV channel as saying that the people of GB had buried the opposition’s narrative.

A low turnout was witnessed in some upper areas of GB, including Ghizer, Hunza and Sost, due to snowfall. There were also reports about slow pace of voting at some polling stations due to power outages.

Most of the voters and the election staff, however, were seen following standard operating procedures (SOPs) that had been announced by the caretaker GB government at the polling stations to deal with coronavirus threat.

This time the polls in GB had assumed much significance because of the tense political situation in Pakistan where 11 opposition parties have been running an anti-government campaign from the platform of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

Test for major parties

Political experts are terming the elections a test case for the popularity of the country’s three major political parties — the PTI, PML-N and PPP. Despite being part of the anti-government opposition PDM, the country’s two main opposition parties — the PPP and PML-N — contested the elections in GB against each other.

The PPP, which ran an extensive campaign led by party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, was the only party which kept on highlighting irregularities and wrongdoings on the part of the election staff and security personnel at some polling stations through social media almost throughout the day.

Information secretary of the PPP’s GB chapter Sadia Danish, who is also a candidate from GBLA-18 Diamer-IV, alleged that the polling agents of the party’s candidate in Gilgit-1 (GBLA-1) had been made hostage at a polling station set up at Government Girls Middle School at Skarkai. She also accused the presiding officer of stamping some ballots.

Ms Danish alleged that Form-45 had been received at 62 polling stations in the constituency of GBLA-1 Gilgit after 8pm.

The PPP alleged that in one of the polling stations in GBLA-13 Astore-I, the security personnel were seen asking the people to vote for the PTI candidate.

Minutes before closing of polling, PPP vice president Sherry Rehman held a news conference in Gilgit and alleged that a number of election observers of the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) had been removed from the polling stations before the start of the counting process.

Ms Rehman said Fafen observers must be given full access and all observers should be allowed inside during the counting of votes as their absence would only create more questions and cause controversy. “People who are coming to cast their votes are finding out that their votes have already been cast through postal ballots. It is concerning and the PPP has informed the Election Commission but has not received any answer,” she said.

Ms Rehman said it was unacceptable that women were being restricted from using their right to vote and such acts would only damage the credibility of the elections.

Earlier in the day, the PPP had alleged that women had been barred from voting at some polling stations at Tangir Vallet in Diamer.

A senior Fafen representative, when contacted, confirmed that some returning officers, mostly in Skardu, had asked their observers to leave the polling stations before the start of the counting process. However, he said, when they approached the Election Commission, it immediately issued the directives to the presiding officers that Fafen observers be allowed to witness the counting process. He said Fafen had deployed nearly 550 election observers and they received reports only from eight of them about imposition of some restrictions on them during the counting process.

As many as 327 candidates, including four women, contested for 23, out of 24 general seats, in the third elections for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA). The elections were earlier scheduled to be held in August but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The PPP had fielded 23 candidates whereas there were 21 aspirants from the PML-N. After making a seat adjustment with the MWM on two constituencies, the PTI had fielded 22 candidates.

The PTI had been strengthened with the recent joining of local leaders and seasoned politicians who had previously won the elections on PPP and PML-N tickets.

More than 15,000 security personnel from GB, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan performed duties at polling stations.

PPP chairman Bhutto-Zardari, who has been in the region for weeks and leading the party’s political campaign, through a tweet earlier in the day said 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.

Addressing a press conference earlier in the day in Multan, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood 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, adding 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.

Information Minister Shibli Faraz said 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.

Gilgit-Baltistan, formally known as the Federally Administered Northern Areas, is an autonomous region with a separate governance and electoral framework. The total number of registered voters in the region is 745,361 with 450,305 males and 339,998 females. Women constitute 45.61 per cent of the total electorates.

In the 2015 elections, the total number of voters stood at 618,364 — 329,475 men and 288,889 women. The proportion of women voters at that time was 46.71 per cent, which means that the gap between male and female voters in the region has increased by 1.10pc in the past five years.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2020

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