GB Elections & External Voting – A case of “To Whom It May Concern”

Wajahat Khan

The government of Pakistan had offered to arrange external vote-casting for Afghan citizens/refugees in Afghanistan elections (2004) which was respectfully turned down by friends of Pakistan –the Afghan government. If a similar offer was to be made to at least Pakistan-based Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) kinfolks in their upcoming legislative assembly elections, it would be one the majority cannot refuse.

The scattered population of GB, residing throughout Pakistan and abroad is seen making demands of external voting in the form of protests, online petitions and social media debates. Most seem hopeless and yet desperate about the idea to be able to vote externally for local candidates in their constituencies back home in the upcoming GB legislative assembly elections, apparently predicted to be held not later than June this year.

Rights activists seem confused as to whom demands of diaspora voting should be made, as power and initiative remains within federal government and as it may not be in their best political interests.

Being one of the most sophisticated political setups, GB is run in different capacities by Legislative Assembly, Council and Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, not to mention United Nation’s different articles that apply until resolution of Kashmir dispute.

According to International IDEA Handbook (2007), ninety-two (92) countries allow external voting in legislative elections. The idea of external voting for citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan can be comprehended not only as universality of the right to vote but as an acknowledgement of their compromises.

Considering their categorical accession to Pakistan, political sacrifices including those for Kashmir cause, years of political isolation, but most of all years of necessary external migration for work and quality education, it would not be unjust to listen to their demands of external voting. It can be carried out as a test that may just lead to an interesting case study.

Short-term possibilities for GB’s diaspora do not end here. Bearing in mind GB’s legal association with Kashmir conflict, it is essential to note that twelve (12) seats out of forty-one (41) in Azad Jammu Kashmir Legislative Assembly (AJK-LA) represent Kashmiri diaspora all over Pakistan. These 12 seats are distributed throughout all provinces; nine (9) in Punjab, two (2) in Sindh and Balochistan and one (1) in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

To make it simple, if AJK-LA diaspora representation model was to be replicated in GB, this would mean that migrants from Gilgit-Baltistan residing in different provinces would be able to choose, vote for and elect representatives from within themselves and send them to GB legislative assembly back home. This model acts as an enabling environment for leadership from within the diaspora. If it has worked for people of AJK, it can be tried in GB.

The process of deciding one or another model and putting in place a diaspora voting method (for example, voting by person) for voters would not be a huge task, if and only there sparks a sense of rights and political participation within the current power center. AJK has more than twice the population of GB. It is not a matter of innovation but a matter of simple replication.

The person “officially” responsible for conducting upcoming elections is the Chief Election Commissioner of GB who in accordance with “GB Empowerment and Self-Governance Order (2009)” was appointed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan on the advice of governor, let alone the appointment of governor on the advice of the Prime Minister. Currently, the phrases “leader of opposition” and “consultation process” lack clear existence during this important appointment.

The region comprises of political, ethnic and religious minorities with zero representation in national assembly and the upper house, basic information which majority of Pakistanis are unaware of.

Increasing numbers of countries are acknowledging their diaspora as an asset. They are seen significant to the course of nation-building. If GB’s external voters within Pakistan are given the right to vote or in addition one diaspora-representation model like AJK-LA, it can be a source of encouragement and hope for those living abroad. It will strengthen democracy, enable a sense of inclusiveness for the urban and educated migrants and reinforce ties between migrants and their home town.

It is compulsory to revisit the functions of Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan. The ministry should now consider providing services like those provided by Ireland’s Ministry of Diaspora to its people. Time bound efforts need to begin to cater to the demands of GB’s diaspora.

The writer tweets at @wajahatkhans (link: https://twitter.com/wajahatkhans )

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