By M Ismail Khan
Gilgit-Baltistan’s first election after attaining the province-like status is set to produce a hung assembly. Major mainstream political parties are likely to get a small part of the pie while a handful of seats would go to independent candidates.
The 12 November election is generating intense campaigns. The PML-N, the PML-Q, the MQM, the PPP, the ANP, the PTI, the JI, the JUI and the Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance (GBDA) — a local nationalist party — are all fielding candidates for the 24 members to be directly elected to the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA). Election on nine reserved seats, six for women and three for technocrats, will be held later.
Being a federally administered territory for the last 62 years, traditionally Gilgit-Baltistan’s voters tend to swing towards the incumbent government in Islamabad. This will also be the first election in the region following the assassination of former PM Benazir Bhutto, who was the architect of the 1994 Legal Framework Order (LFO) introducing a degree of electoral reforms in the region, which was later overhauled by Nawaz Sharif and then Shaukat Aziz governments before the current PPP administration issued a new LFO in September 2009 titled “Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order”. Therefore, the PPP enjoys a clear advantage, ideally for a landslide victory. But that is surprisingly an unlikely scenario in this election.
The PPP will manage to muster a couple of seats more than the PML-N, the PML-Q and the MQM but there is no chance of any single party making it big enough to form a government on its own. In fact, by the morning of 13 November, PPP could face a similar situation as it has in the Centre, meaning a simple majority of about 7 to 8 seats in the 24-member assembly and having to enter into a tedious coalition building process. The PPP could have fared better, had it gone for younger and more capable candidates while awarding tickets, but instead the party went for loyalists who unfortunately suffer from credibility as well as capacity issues at the local level. Therefore, much of its leading luminaries are either losing the election or are facing extremely close contests. The party needs serious reforms in the leadership cadre to do justice to its potential in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The PML-N went through a rough patch in Gilgit-Baltistan following Musharraf’s takeover. Most of their leading figures were either tempted to switch over to the PML-Q or faced political obscurity. But Nawaz Sharif’s return has changed the situation and the party loyalists have regrouped and are working hard to strengthen the party. Unlike the PPP where local office holders blocked tickets of near consensus and winning candidates, the PML-N office-bearers sacrificed their personal interests to accommodate potential candidates for the party’s well being. The latest whirlwind campaign tour by Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif to Gilgit-Baltistan has boosted the party’s confidence and chances.
The PML-N’s high powered political engagement in the border district of Skardu and Ganche is also likely to go down well in the military circles, as among all the political and other stakeholders in the country, it is probably the military establishment which has developed the deepest understanding of the people and geo-strategic importance of Gilgit-Baltistan. The Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) Light Infantry (NLI) Regiment’s outstanding skills in mountain warfare on Siachen and Kargil sectors, and its major contribution to fighting the insurgency in Swat and Malakand and now in South Waziristan has further elevated Gilgit-Baltistan’s position.
The PML-Q is down but certainly not out of the race. Senator Nisar Memon and MNA Marvi Memon demonstrated strong personal commitment to keep the party afloat in the area. The father and daughter duo has managed to retain interest of some winning horses. Mushahid Hussain has joined the campaign. His communication skills can come handy for the PML-Q candidates precariously standing on the edges. In case the PML-Q manages to pull a couple of seats from Gilgit and at least one from Baltistan, the party will be in line to claim a stake in a coalition government along with other contenders.
But the biggest surprise package of the 2009 GBLA election is the grand entry of the MQM. Out of nowhere, the MQM has become a major political force in Gilgit-Baltistan. The MQM is showing the hallmark of a party hungry for success outside its traditional hub of Karachi and Hyderabad. The MQM’s entry, first in the AJK legislature through two reserved seats for migrant Kashmiris and now in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is more of a mainstream arena as for the election is concerned, could be a sign of the party’s budding ambitions. Locally, the MQM gains are welcomed as a good antidote to the zero sum sectarian politics. The party has fielded 19 candidates compared to the PPP’s 23, the PML-N’s 15 and the PML-Q’s 14. Regardless of the number of seats the MQM would garner, which by the way is 2 to 4 seats at best and none at worst, the party is poised to become a major political actor in the long run.
The ANP, which is stranded in a war-like situation on the home turf, has also joined the foray in what the NWFP considers its backyard. Their effort is a bit too feeble and timing bit too late though. The same goes with Imran Khan’s PTI. Both have fielded candidates in Gilgit region. The JUI enjoys a foothold in the Diamer district which borders the NWFP but again in view of a closely contested election among the mainstream parties, the JUI’s and other far right parties’ prospects are limited.
With a relatively small population and vast area thrice bigger than the size of Fata and 12 times larger than the AJK, Gilgit-Baltistan is Pakistan’s hidden Canada in terms of relative peace, richness of natural resources and investment opportunities, particularly in the direly needed hydro power sector. Known for its geo-strategic location and links with major economic zones in West, Central and South Asia, Gilgit-Baltistan’s massive prospects in cross border trade, horticulture, energy, mineral, tourism and water sectors. But it’s a potential that can only be harnessed if the region is suitably mainstreamed through a legitimate constitutional framework ensuring constitutionally protected institutions and an independent judiciary — things that are still missing in the latest ‘Empowerment Order”.
Here, the MQM’s messages are striking the chord. They are talking about the constitutional rights of the people, the neglect, the denials, the right of representation in parliament, right to access Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Gilgit-Baltistan’s right to become Pakistan’s fifth province, seeking truth and equality — elements that are beyond the standard promises of development funds and politics of packages — hence it is evident that in the future the party which gets clear message across reflecting true feelings of the majority of constituents will eventually command majority in electoral politics of Gilgit-Baltistan as well. Hard sell, but that’s how politics works or does not work.
(The writer has spoken on the rights of Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir in a number of national and international forums including the European Parliament, the United Nations and the US Congress. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)