With political rallies and events of the last few weeks fresh in their minds, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have headed to the polls to elect their third legislative assembly. The voting began at 8:00am and will go on till 5:00pm.
According to data obtained from the G-B Election Commission, a total of 745,361 people have registered to vote today, 339,992 of whom are women. Nearly 1,234 polling stations have been set up in the 24 constituencies, of which 415 have been declared extremely sensitive.
Police, G-B Scouts, the Rangers and FC personnel will be deployed at the sensitive stations to ensure a smooth election process, although G-B Caretaker Chief Minister Mir Afzal earlier announced that they would not seek the Pakistan Army’s assistance for the polls.
On Saturday, G-B Chief Election Commissioner Raja Shehbaz Khan reviewed security arrangements at polling stations in Gilgit city. He also visited the election cell of the G-B police department, where he received a briefing on the arrangements from police chief Mujeebur Rehman and DIG Headquarters Afzal Mehmood Butt, an official statement released by the G-B Election Commission said.
A woman casts her vote at an all-women’s polling station in Gilgit-Baltistan. PHOTO: EXPRESS
Expressing satisfaction with the arrangements, the CEC said no one would be allowed to take the law into their own hands. ‘We have to ensure clean and transparent elections in the region,” he added.
However, it is unlikely his comments will pacify the reservations of the participating parties.
Voters stand in a queue outside a polling station in Nomal, Gilgit. PHOTO: EXPRESS
As the top leadership of all participating parties held the last of their election rallies in major cities in the region on Saturday, a contentious campaign process finally came to an end. Over the weeks that it spanned over, all political factions engaged in contentious rhetoric.
The opposition parties in the centre took particular offense at the role some federal figures played in PTI’s election campaign. “Where is the chief election commissioner? Why is he silent over a minister’s visit,” PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said before a group of journalists, as he accused the PTI of risking ‘serious consequences’ by ‘openly engaging in pre-poll rigging’.
Bilawal was referring to Federal Minister for G-B and AJK Ali Amin Gandapur, who visited all 10 districts of the region over the week, participating in public rallies and announcing development projects. “G-B will have megaprojects but that is only possible after you vote the PTI to power,” he claimed in one of the gatherings which took place in Gilgit.
PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz expressed similar sentiments to those of Bilawal a few days. “There is prepoll rigging all around,” she said referring to announcements Gandapur made repeatedly at PTI election rallies. Referring to the defection of 10 PML-N leaders to the PTI, Maryam said it “it only exposes the level of a party that needs PML-N candidates to be relevant in the elections.”
The PML-N started its campaign slightly later than PPP, whose chairman kept party workers charged for over three weeks. In contrast to Bilawal, who ran a full throttle campaign in person from the front, Maryam only visited G-B for a week in November.
A brief history of G-B
G-B’s modern history can be traced back to the 19th century. In 1846, after many wars and bloodshed, the Dogras incorporated the region into the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. The relationship remained intact till 1947 when G-B ousted the Dogras and offered to join Pakistan unconditionally.
G-B is a disputed territory under the UN’s resolutions, and up till now its fate has been linked with the unresolved Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. But over the years, on the demand of the local population, Pakistan has been taking steps to politically affiliate the region with the country.
G-B was made an administrative province in 2009 after then president of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari signed the Empowerment and Self Governance Order which introduced a chief minister and governor for the region for the first time. PPP won the first elections then in 2009 and Mehdi Shah became the first chief minister of G-B.
During the tenure of PML-N government, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif constituted a powerful committee headed by Sartaj Aziz to bring reforms in the previous governor order of 2009. The committee worked on the reform document for two years and recommended a ‘provisional constitutional province for G-B’ with representation in parliament. That plan did not materialise, however, due to friction between the PML-N and the establishment.
At present, the region functions under the Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018, which replaced the G-B Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009. However, both the orders have failed to give representation to people of G-B in the Pakistani parliament.
In November 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that G-B would be given the status of a provisional province and that the process to fully convert it into an actual province is currently underway.
The participation of the country’s top politicians in the election campaign and their vows to build multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects also suggests that decades of G-B’s disenfranchisement may come to an end relatively soon.