Thu. May 28th, 2020

Caretaker Govt in Gilgit Baltistan: Unprecedented Challenges amidst COVID 19


Sheraz Abdullah

The present Government of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) will complete its five years term on June 24th, 2020 and the next general elections for the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly will fall due within prescribed time thereafter depending on the situations in GB. In the absence of clarity for the rules of game for upcoming elections, once again SCOP intervened at the request of Federal Government and ordered to conduct the elections. On April 30, a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Islamabad, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Gulzar Ahmed, had allowed the government to organize general elections in GB, and to set up a caretaker government there before that, which was strongly objected by India. India’s reaction is consistent with previous objections it has voiced against elections in GB and in other parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which it refers to as “Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK).

Certain political activists having vested interests with no empathy towards Pakistan’s position also bizarrely term the carrying out of elections in GB as illegal and unconstitutional. They believe that “Supreme Court of Pakistan has made an illegal ruling in the context of GB since it is not a constitutional part of the country. Pakistan is an occupier and must withdraw from Mirpur, Muzaffarabad, Gilgit, and Baltistan.” This view is completely rejected by the majority of the people of GB and they have been participating in elections with full zeal and interest. SCOP has answered this beautifully in its detailed judgment dated 30 April 2020 and I reproduced as below:

“We are therefore in no manner of doubt that this Court has ample powers in terms of Article 184 (3) read with Article 187 of the Constitution to pass appropriate orders to avoid a constitutional crisis. In addition, this Court has reserved to itself the power to pass appropriate orders in continuation of our judgment dated 17.01.2019. Further, none of the stakeholders including the sitting Government of GB has raised any objection or expressed any reservations regarding the prayer made by the Federal Government and have in fact fully supported”. 

The government of Pakistan issued a demarche to protest what it called Pakistan’s attempt to make “material changes” to the disputed area, by bringing federal authority to GB, which has functioned as a “provincial autonomous region” since 2009.

It is also important to understand that a seven-judge larger bench headed by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar on January 7 had reserved its verdict regarding a set of petitions challenging the Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018, Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009, as well as the right of the citizens of the area to be governed through their chosen representatives. Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCOP) announced its historic judgment about Gilgit Baltistan (GB) and its future constitutional accession to Pakistan and annexed an order termed as “Gilgit Baltistan Governance Reforms 2019” extending to only the whole of GB as part of its judgment.

The decision primarily focused on very important historical and constitutional issues involving the status, authority and powers of GB including the judiciary and the rights available to its people. What was needed after that judgement back then was that all the political parties join the hands together and show their political willingness to let GB grow constitutionally. Preventive measures and a nationwide dialogue including the representatives from GB and other state-owned institutions would have been held immediately to help implementing the recommendations emerging as a result of these dialogues.

The political leadership at GB and Federal Government failed to take necessary actions to implement a constitutionally understood framework and remained idle for almost five months till the time SCOP intervened once again at the request of the Federal Government. The absence of Laws, Rules and Regulations to conduct elections and to put in place a caretaker set up to ensure that such elections are held under a neutral and impartial Government providing a level playing field to all parties and candidates participating in the elections would cause a constitutional vacuum which will create legal and constitutional complications.

The SCOP in its order on 30 April 2020, ordered below

With the consent of all stakeholders, some of whom are present in Court it is ordered as follows:

  • The Federal Government may issue a Presidential Order inter alia to adopt the Election Act, 2017 (as in force in Pakistan) together with all rules, regulations and byelaws framed thereunder to apply mutatis mutandis to the territory of GilgitBaltistan; and
  • To take all other steps that may be necessary or incidental to the holding of free, fair and transparent elections under an impartial caretaker Governmental set up for the purpose of holding free, fair and transparent elections and in line with Article 56(5) of the proposed GilgitBaltistan Governance Reforms Order, 2019 together with all provisos as incorporated in Schedule to the judgment of this Court dated 17.01.2019.

SCOP, in its order, mentions that in the interest of transparency, impartiality and holding of free and fair elections, it is imperative that the Election Act, 2017 along with Rules and Regulations framed thereunder may be allowed to be adopted by way of a Presidential Order for the time being and permission may also be granted to put in place a caretaker set up.

In addition, the Election Act, 2017 provides a comprehensive, tried and tested legal framework to deal with all matters relating to the election process. Adoption of the same would serve the purpose of timely holding of elections and provide a robust legal framework to deal with all issues relating to electoral process till its culmination.

Further to the above court order, the Federal Government through Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and GB through its notification dated 15 May 2020, issued the “The Gilgit Baltistan (Elections and Caretaker Government Amendment Order, 2020”. It is very important to note that a new article 48-A has been inserted after the article 48 of the GB Order 2018 which reads as follows:

“The Elections Act 2017, all rules, regulations and by- laws, framed thereunder (as are in force in Pakistan) shall be adapted in the territory of Gilgit Baltistan, mutatis mutandis. Article 56 (5) of the proposed Gilgit Baltistan Governance Reforms Order, 2019 together with all the provisions is hereby adapted in the territory of Gilgit Baltistan, mutatis mutandis”

Article 56(5) of the proposed Gilgit Baltistan Governance Reforms Order, 2019 states that:

“On dissolution of Assembly on completion of its term, or in case it is dissolved under Article 62, the Chairman of the Council shall appoint a caretaker Cabinet. Provided that the care-taker Chief Minister shall be selected by the Chairman of the Council in consultation with the Chief Minister, the leader of the Opposition in the outgoing Assembly and the Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan.

 Provided further that the members of the care-taker Cabinet shall be appointed on the advice of the care-taker Chief Minister.

Provided also that if the Chief Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in the outgoing Assembly and the Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan do not agree on any person to be appointed as care-taker Chief Minister, the Chairman of the Council may appoint, in his discretion, a care-taker Chief Minister”.

This selection and consultative process need to be fair and transparent such that the independence and integrity of the process will not be questioned by any sphere of society.

Article 224A of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan states

“In case a Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the outgoing Provincial Assembly do not agree on any person to be appointed as the care-taker Chief Minister, within three days of the dissolution of that Assembly, they shall forward two nominees each to a Committee to be immediately constituted by the Speaker of the Provincial Assembly, comprising six members of the outgoing Provincial Assembly having equal representation from the Treasury and the Opposition, to be nominated by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition respectively. Provided that in case of inability of the Committee to decide the matter in the aforesaid period, the names of the nominees shall be referred to the Election Commission of Pakistan for final decision within two days”

Although this process of appointment of caretaker chief minister in GB under 56(5) is different than the rest of the Pakistan as mentioned above, the process sill allows the political leadership and the opposition to apply the wisdom for this consultative process.

The people of GB, in the spirit of upholding the democratic process intact in GB, expects that the Caretaker Government shall comprise of highly respected persons with proven track record of high levels of integrity, impartiality, uprightness and competence. The question of timely holding of free and fair elections is a matter of public importance.

The Election Commission GB has issued the notification dated 18th May curtailing all the powers of the GB government and issued directives as to how the functions of the government of GB be conducted during this period as the Election Commission GB understands, based on the press reports, that certain actions taken by the government GB can convey some wrong messages to the public at large making elections tainted. The Election Commission GB believes that under the powers conferred upon it by the Election Rules 2017, such steps are necessary to avoid any influence on the upcoming elections.

The caretaker setup will be facing many challenges, but the four top pertinent ones are listed below:

  • COVID 19 – this would be the biggest challenge that the caretaker government has to face. This needs to be handled carefully at the health side but also in the context of the upcoming election process. A special task force needs to be constituted of civil society representing all political and religious parties under the leadership of caretaker CM who should be given regular updates on the situation. This taskforce should have a permanent office in the CM secretariat till the process of election is completed and the new government sworn in. This taskforce should have a fair representation from the military establishment and a full-time dedicated team be reserved for this task force. The GB force commander and the CM should have a close coordination mechanism. A special committee of local and national level journalists would be constituted who would be providing the updates to the public on COVID 19 status and a temporary office would be constituted for this purpose. The communication channels should not be disturbed during the process.
  • Safety measures for carrying out elections – the caretaker CM and the government needs to think about all the possible ways for carrying out the election process in a healthy environment. E polling and other outside the box solutions need to be discussed and considered. In my view, physical polling of elections in one day would be considered a fatal exercise and this would be an expensive exercise at the cost of many lives. Special election arrangements need to be made for old age and sick people if the physical polling is the only solution. Number of days and areas wise elections in phased manner can be considered another option. A special ministry needs to be created for this side and should have a task force led by CM and various available options be analyzed in close coordination with the Election Commission GB. A special conference on this subject be called upon by the Election Commission for the suggestions from all the political and religious parties. This conference to be arranged under the supervision of the Election Commission and white papers need to be developed in the literary and political arena. I can see that there could be a critical role played by the students and professors of the Karakoram International University to develop such consensus. The conference should be attended by the representatives of the medical fraternity to provide technical input for probable and possible issues and provide their input. The World Health Organization (WHO) can be contacted to agree on SOPs for such an unprecedented electoral process – I must say that we must get approval of the WHO and other relevant organizations before conducting such elections. This process has to be started well in advance and social awareness campaigns/training need be started. Based on such suggestions a complete road map needs to be developed for the upcoming elections. This could possibly mean changes in the rules of the electoral process mentioned under the Act 2017 and this could be a time-consuming exercise.
  • Law and order situation – this would be another biggest challenge that needs to be carefully tackled. The situation of unrest and vested interest of other powers may not be underestimated. The military establishment task force needs to be in close connection with the civil caretaker set up. A back up plan for the rangers, police and army need to be chalked out well in advance to cater for the unforeseen problems. The border force security needs to be enhanced during this period.
  • Political gatherings and rallies – a whole GB wide consensus need to be developed for carrying out these activities. A charter needs to be developed and agreed with civil administration for conducting such a process. Local TV channels, video links and other digital apps can be used for carrying out such activities to minimize the mass gatherings. The software developers can develop various electoral apps for conveying the messages to the masses. Local pamphlets can be used in a smart way to convey the messages without harming the health of the people. In addition to this, the internet facilities need to be enhanced on urgent basis and Special Communication Organization need to be on board for providing this facility. The other ISPs need to be contacted soon and special packages need to be introduced.

“Sheraz Abdullah is a qualified chartered accountant from GB based in the Middle East having vast experience of over 18 years on finance, economic and geopolitical issues working as a director with an international consulting organization. Observing GB issues and their critical and independent analysis with international perspective has always been his passion and and can be reached at sabdullagb@gmail.com

What do you think?

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