Elections in Gilgit-Baltistan


The PML-N won, the PTI lost, the PPP got routed out and the MQM disintegrated. It has been an epic electoral battle for a symbolic province that produced an equally powerful symbolic election result. 

The PTI pulled crowds, but PML-N polled votes. The PML-N raised hopes and gained, the PTI fomented fear and faltered. At the end of the day, the PML-N clinched a clear victory with 16 seats out of 24 elected members of the legislative assembly. The PPP and PTI who have been cut to a sorry figure of one member each are now holding to the coattails of religious parties who like them are staring down the barrel of additional women and technocrat seats going the PML-N’s way. 

There are many lessons for Imran Khan to take home from GB’s election. The Kaptaan had no team. Except for the twice elected Mirza Hussain in Nagar, who unfortunately died of a heart attack a week after the election defeat, the PTI neither seemed to have an experienced team on the ground, nor good strategists in the drawing-rooms. The PTI’s best bet, Izhar Hunzai, the former GM of AKRSP, contesting from Hunza got sandwiched by powerful candidates running from the prison and also from the outside. 

The PTI’s campaign lacked content and the messaging was weak if not hopelessly vague. The Kaptaan received grand receptions from people; but from Skardu to Hunza and Khaplu to Ghizerye this team failed to connect with the ordinary. Imran’s anti-Nawaz rants had no appeal for poor people engrossed in their own day-to-day survival issues. His belated promise for a cancer hospital in GB was too little, too late for voters who cared more about a functional local hospital that could give pills for diarrhoea and headache. 

The PTI failed to clarify its position on matters that mattered. Imran Khan stayed mum about GB’s constitutional rights, their representation in parliament and other decision-making forums. He was unable to indicate a sense of commitment to resolve GB’s boundary, power and water related disputes with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – a province his party runs. He could not even offer an increase in the number of seats in medical and engineering college for GB’s students in KP. On the other hand, Shahbaz Sharif doubled the number of seats for GB students in Punjab’s educational institutions despite losing the previous election. People in GB may be simple but they are practical; they are certainly not naïve and naturally prefer substance over rhetoric. 

It was not an easy ride for the PML-N either. The election chessboard was loaded with all kind of gun-toting and fire-spitting religious parties. Some of the banned religious-cum-sectarian groups reinvented with new names were operating at their lethal best. It was mind-boggling to see some of these outfits roaming around freely, using sectarian overtones in a sensitive region like GB. Can’t say about India but our all-weather Chinese friends next door must have not liked it one bit. 

These religio-political groups were openly pitching candidates and bank-rolling expensive campaigns. Their deft Machiavellians moves rattled mainstream parties in many key constituencies. They strategically fielded and withdrew candidates, struck alliances, often at the last moments to reward certain flag-bearers. Interestingly, their moves mainly cut into PML-N candidates’ vote banks. 

The biggest blockbuster show of GB 2015 Election was GBLA 7, Skardu 1 where the PML-N’s Akbar Khan Taban locked horns with the PPP’s former chief minister Syed Mehdi Shah, and the PTI’s Raja Jalal Hussain Khan. While the PPP’s outgoing CM was ousted by a wide margin, competition between the PML-N’s Akbar Taban and the PTI’s Raja Jalal went to the wire with Akbar Taban finally clinching the recount, witnessed by the regional military leadership and the independent press, by one vote.

Here again two religious parties took a big bite into Akbar Taban’s votes. Yet Taban, who speaks GB’s all three major languages, managed to hold on to a broad-based support base. A long-time associate of PM Nawaz Sharif, he became the first opposition candidate to defeat the outgoing PPP chief minister Mehdi Shah twice, once in Skardu’s college union election over three decades back!

This GB election carnival is not over yet. Formation of government in a culturally diverse and ethnically, religiously and linguistically fragmented place is a challenge and is likely to trigger some fireworks. As of now, the PML-N’s GB President Hafeez-ur-Rehman from Gilgit is tipped as the next chief minister of the symbolic province. The PML-N’s Haji Akbar Khan Taban may be asked to become the first GB governor from Baltistan region. Other heavyweights jostling for key positions include Mir Ghazanfer of Hunza, Fida Nashad from Baltistan, and Janbaz Khan from Daimir districts. They will be pulling all possible strings to get the top jobs. 

But the real test of the new government is to come true on the big-ticket projects Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has promised – and to do it fast. Though the onus of implementing most of the prime minister’s directives rests with the federal government, the performance of the new GB government in the months ahead will be measured against the progress achieved on some of the following:

i) The 7100MW Bunji run-of-the-river hydro-power project

ii) The 175km Gilgit-Skardu road project. This is the only road link to Siachen and Kargil borders and is thus a high priority project for the military as well

iii) The 20MW Hanzal hydro power project in Gilgit

iv) Up-gradation of Gilgit and Skardu airports. Test flight of Airbus 320 to Skardu conducted successfully a week after the elections and regular airbus flight expected soon thus boosting tourism. 

v) New districts of Hunza, Nagar, Shigar and Kharmang to be institutionalised

vi) Establishment of Baltistan University in Skardu City.

And last but not the least; the GB government has to make sure that the county’s veteran foreign policy adviser Sartaj Aziz, head of the constitutional reforms committee set up by the PM, does not sleep over the recommendations during the remaining period of the PML-N government in Islamabad. Given India’s increasingly annoying statements on GB’s undefined status, and Pakistan and China’s higher than the Himalayas stakes in the economic corridor, the GB government cannot and should not let Sartaj Aziz brood over it indefinitely. 

Those in and out of the government should continue to press the committee to come up with a plan to make this strategically indispensible ‘symbolic province’ at least a ‘provisional constitutional province’ till the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Yes, some pro-status quo Indian, American and Kashmiri politicians will protest, but they’ll eventually understand. 

The writer has a background in public policy, media and legislative development, and is from Gilgit-Baltistan. Email: ismail.mik@gmail.com 

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