Gilgit-Baltistan Elections: Changing Landscape for Priorities in Corona Era

By Sherbaz Ali Khan

COVID19 is one of those events, which will have long lasting impacts on the people and the planet in many ways. As feared, its manifestations are already evident in form of changed social patterns, economic implications, and political discourses. The magnitude and duration of the pandemic is yet to be fully known, but the course of action seems to already have been taken by governments, systems and people. It is an example of how vulnerable human beings are, and how occurrence of a phenomena of unusual scale can disrupt everyone, everywhere and everything. Once Corona is contained and controlled, and hopefully it will, the denizens of our planet will live through different times leaving behind many of their practices of the past and adhering to new ways introduced in Corona era. No nation can be an exception and so are we, therefore, while thinking ahead, priorities at national, provincial and local levels, need to align with the newly established realities and demands.

Here in Gilgit-Baltistan, the year of Corona is also the year of elections for Gilgilt-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA). Amid Corona pandemic, the discussion of elections has not attained the momentum yet, which would otherwise have been at its crescendo by now.  In the fourth week of June 2020, the current provincial government of GB will complete its tenure of five years. As per procedure, interim government will be put in place for holding elections and making arrangements for smooth transition to the government elect. It is a welcomed sign that the second provincial government completed its tenure after Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009. The credit of which goes to both federal and provincial governments; where federal government did not interfere in the matters of the provincial government and abstained from destabilizing it, while provincial government, on its part, well managed its own members as well as opposition, and engaged with federal government on matters important to the people and province.

The elections will determine about who is going to form provincial government. All the major political parties will contest the elections and their local and national leadership will make every effort on seizing the opportunity in their favor. Each of the parties has its manifesto as well as its claims of enjoying people’s support and converting that into votes in elections. Influence of the national parties, dynamics of local politics, alliances and parting away from each other, talk about performance; delivery and history of service, and future prospects are what will dominate the course of elections.  Experiences of the past have corroborated the perception that the ruling parties in Islamabad had had edge over other parties in GB elections, be it PPP or PMLN or PMLQ. Now PTI as a major political party, which is the incumbent federal government as well, is also in the field and will be competing with the former ruling parties, so dynamics of elections this time are different than past.

Also, sooner or later, one of the important developments might be further changes in the current provincial setup as evident from the hearing in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which whenever enacted, will have further bearings on the then government in terms of its functions as a result of stretching or shrinking of current limits of provisional provincial status. Federal Government has also been mentioning that recent developments in the region are being closely looked at for any decision as regard to change in the current status of GB. Given the scenario, in addition to elections, more changes can be expected in the times ahead.

Amid the fears of Corona, it is earlier to predict whether the elections will be held within the timeframe. If the current situation persists or turns worse, commencement of elections might be delayed with whatever feasible provisional arrangement in place for the interim period. However, if the situation turns mild or descends down, there is every possibility of holding the elections preceded by some political activities.  Whether on time or delayed, the government elected as a result of elections, will find itself faced with the impacts of COVID19, and its priorities, to a large extent, will be defined and directed to set off these impacts on short, medium- and long-term basis. In the current scenario and keeping in view the future needs, some of the possible considerations for priorities of the new setup might include enhancing capacity of government machinery, seamless coordination mechanism, close relations with federal government, more focus towards public health, education and human development, availability of data for decision making and service delivery, and use of technology and media for greater outreach.

It is obvious that when a pandemic like Corona or any natural disaster strikes, the response needs to be multifaceted involving multiple roles of government machinery. Responding to Corona is good example of how interlinked are the roles and responsibilities of various departments in provision of wide range of services, some of which include making resources available,  tracking, testing and treatment of affectees, establishment, management and maintenance of quarantine centers, providing information to people on Corona and safety measures, managing lockdowns, having access to and providing support to those in need and others temporarily affected by lockdown, maintain law and order, ensuring provision of necessary services, keeping hygienic conditions, and controlling the effects of uncertainty and taking care of people living elsewhere in the country and the list goes on. Such a huge task can only be carried out with involvement of all concerned government machinery, and of course, it was this joint efforts and resultant outcomes, for which GB government was appreciated. It is not only Corona response, where this combined effort was needed, nor Corona is the last issue to be addressed, there are certain other big issues where only response of this scale can meaningfully contribute. Some examples are natural disasters, climate change, poverty eradication and social and behavioral change. Therefore, capacity building of the government machinery should be among top priorities of the future government.

Capacity alone will not work effectively if there is no mechanism of coordination within and among government machinery. Coordination in terms of timely communication, sharing of data, making synergies, collaborations, joint operation mechanism, and vertical and horizontal linkages with public and private sector actors. Coordination and timely and clear communication can bolster coherent actions and efficient use of resources in addition to undo many confusions and duplications. Amid Corona, the need of effective coordination might not have only been realized for collective decision making and response but also many areas where coordination is lacking must also have been identified, and the new government can take it to the next level by making it seamless, responsive and accountable.

Gilgit-Baltistan has been federally administrated for long time and also is mostly dependent on federal government for allocation of resources, which come from the share of federal government in national divisible pool. Therefore, close relation and coordination with federal government often have their dividends and the case being otherwise has its consequences. Also, for attainment of more self-governance (provisional), gaining federal government’s support for development of various sectors, capacity building of elected and executive tier of government, and avoiding communication gaps (if any), it is necessary that provincial government should pay close attention to maintain and strengthen close relations with federal government irrespective of whether they are of the same political party or different parties.

Every political party, entering the elections with their manifesto, must be thinking on revisiting their priorities to adjust to the requirements of post-Covid time. Given the scenario, many top priorities might land somewhere in the low priority areas, while some low priority areas might shoot their way to the top. Focus towards public health, education and human development might seems gaining momentum to the top priorities as lessons learnt from Corona pandemic. Although these are very broad subjects, but they are interconnected. Paying attention to these will not only provide necessary capacity to combat Corona like occurrences, but also result in much improvement in health, education and human resource needed for socio-economic development of Gilgit-Baltistan with capabilities of performing effectively on local, national and international level. One of the issues of the public health, to which VC KIU had drawn attention sometimes back, is that at times the students from our region face difficulties to compete in a competitive international environment due to stunting and insufficient growth-related issues. This is just one example and there could be multiple avenues, where public health issues become impediments. Therefore, keeping pace with development arena and future needs and challenges can be better addressed by focusing on public health, education and human capital development.

Availability of data for decision making and service delivery is an area, where our governments lagged behind due to adherence of tradition way of decision making. Often decisions were based on estimates and bureaucratic figures, which at times either did not address the issues of those in need, or benefited the already well-off sections of society. With the passage of time, data driven decision making is making head in public matters and emphasis on result-based management in public and private sector also necessitates adaptation to this. The Corona era, and the need of data for various interventions, should be a wakeup call for all concerned to be cognizant of the importance of having data in place. Therefore, new government should make data availability as one of its priorities and strengthen already existing mechanisms and bridge the gaps for ensuring sustainable functioning of these systems.

In the current times, technology and media are the most effective source of greater outreach and COVID19 has proved it yet again. Therefore, dependence on and use of technology and media will remain part of effective or otherwise performance of government and its accountability. Technology has made its way through everyday simple things to complex issues in every sphere of life and system of governance, and access to and delivery of public goods and service. One of the exemplary uses of technology during Corona is that of Ehsaas Emergency Cash Transfer Program reaching out to millions, which not only ensures delivery within no time, but also ensures transparency and good governance.  Media, also called as forth pillar of the state, is another giant of current times with power to influence lives and shaping opinions of the people, and the emergence of social media has added to it in many ways. Media makes government accountable on daily basis, one of the examples of which we have seen with the current federal government, which faced media follow up on its manifesto from the day one, irrespective of the circumstances in which the government had taken over. Therefore, the new government need to make it a priority to efficiently use technology and actively engage with media.

Sherbaz Ali Khan is a development professional with over six years of experience in community development. He holds a master’s degree in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University, USA

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