[Opinion] Election chatter

By Farman Ali and Aziz Ali Dad

Islamabad – November 12 will be historic day in Gilgit-Baltistan when over 700,000 adults will vote for the 24 directly elected representatives of the 33-member Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly. The 123 candidates in the race have been fielded by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) and other national and regional parties. The campaign has been fought by all sides largely on sectarian and ethnic lines without offering any coherent programme or vision for the people of this long-neglected region.

This is primarily because kinship-based politics plays an important part in Gilgit division as compared to Baltistan. Gilgit’s diverse population makes ethnicity an important political issue, especially in the Diamer district where the Sheen and Yashkun ethnic groups are in the majority. “Therefore,” Mujibur Rahman of Karakoram International University opines, “well thought-out manifestos do not work in Diamer as people will ultimately vote on the basis of kinship.” In fact kinship ties are so strong in Diamer that despite being very conservative, it has not elected even a single representative of any religious party.

This, however, may reflect a trend that is not limited to Diamer: religious parties, by and large, are in decline in Gilgit. With increasing sectarian tensions in the 1990s, the region had witnessed the rise of sectarian political parties but in the previous election, two candidates of the banned Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan (TJP) were defeated in Nagar, which was considered its stronghold. Candidates affiliated with TJP are contesting this election independently but are unlikely to make significant electoral gains. It is only in Gilgit city and its adjacent t areas that religious parties still hold sway. In the Baltistan Division, on the other hand, ethnicity and religion do not play a big part in politics because of its ethnically, religiously and linguistically homogenous population. And PPP is most likely to win the elections there.

Despite these differences between Gilgit and Baltistan’s politics a common trend has been emerging: the growing importance of a rich entrepreneurial class. This class has prospered thanks to trade on the Karakoram Highway, tourism and timber. Its success in politics was newepitomized by famous mountaineer Nazir Sabir’s victory over Mir Ghazanfar Ali Khan the erstwhile ruler of Hunza, for the first time in 1994. In the upcoming election, the entrepreneurial class is expected to play a pivotal role. Many are contesting from important constituencies while others are financially backing candidates likely to protect their interests.

Nationalist parties are also part of the political equation in Gilgit-Baltistan. Currently, there are various nationalist parties, with the Karakoram Naional Movement and Balawaristan National Front (BNF) being the major ones. BNF, which wants Gilgit-Baltistan’s independence from Pakistan, is split into the Naji and Hameed factions. The former faction   is led by Nawaz Khan Naji, who has been politically active in the region for the last two decades and the latter by Abdul Hameed Khan who lives in exile in Belgium.

Naji is running from Ghizer district, challenging the incumbent, Pir Karam Ali Shah, the only politician from the traditional elite, who has so far remained undefeated. In the last election, Naji lost to Shah by only 1,100 votes but the tides seems to turn now that the younger generation of Ghizer is rallying behind Naji. “Because his message of change resonates with the new generations, Naji is set to win,” says Israr-ud-Din, a columnist and journalist from Gilgit-Baltistan.

However, national (not nationalist) parties are the main players in the upcoming elections. The PPP, MPLN, and PMLQ are all strong contenders. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) have also jumped into the fray this year but since they lack organization in the region, they are not likely to be very successful. Overall, the PPP has fielded candidates fro all 24 seats, MQM for 19, PMLN 15, PMLQ 14, Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance 10, ANP four and PTI three.

The PPP seems poised to win the elections. This not just because of the long-standing presence of the party in the region. Gilgit-Baltistan’s off-cycle elections mean that the party in control of the federal government can prepare the grounds for victory through fair and unfair means in advance. The 1994, 1999 and 2004 elections all saw the party ruling Pakistan at the time win the Gilgit-Baltistan elections too. In the 2004 elections, the Islamabad establishment brought PMLQ to power through post-poll manipulation. The party had won only four seats compared to PPP’s seven. But PMLQ managed to form the government by herding 10 independents into the party promising them advisory positions. “The intelligence agencies themselves vetted candidates and distributed tickets,” says a political expert.

But to give the PPP its due, this year, the efforts of the ruling party at the centre have not been so heavy-handed. On August 30, the PPP government at the centre unveiled a political package called “empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009” conferring a pseudo-provincial status to the region and renaming the Northern Areas Gilgit-Baltistan. However, while the number of legislation subjects have been increased from 49 to 61, the structure of the Legislative Assembly has not seen much change. The 24 – member assembly will now be headed by a chief minister (previously the chief executive) and six of its members will be part of Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Council.

While the package has had its critics who have dismissed it as eyewash it is nonetheless likely to win votes for PPP. On September 29, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani visited the region and announced a 12 billion rupee economic and development package. The PPP has also been touting its Benazir Income Support Programme in the elections. All this is expected to give it an edge, albeit a slim one, over the other parties in the upcoming election.

Published in Herald magazine of the DAWN Media Group

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