NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 08

Lessons from Gilgit-Batistan polls

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf is poised to form the next government in hotly contested elections in Gilgit-Batistan. All mainstream political and religious parties used all possible resources to woo voters. Even the sectarian card was not spared. Pre-poll surveys predicted the same results, except a surprise victory of independent candidates on almost one-third seats of the assembly.

The victory of a large number of independents, who have already joined the ruling party, shows the PTI’s choice of candidates was not right. It is for the first time that a ruling party in Pakistan has not won a two-thirds majority in the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly. Elections in the region are held after a gap of more than two years in Pakistan, which makes the process controversial, as it increases the chances of pre-poll rigging. In 2005, 2010, and 2015, the party in the Centre won the GB elections. Usually, four steps are followed for making the government in the region. The first step is the placement of a favourable caretaker government. The second step is the induction of “electables” in the party. In the third step, sitting ministers visit the region after the announcement of the election schedule. They make tall claims and promises of welfare and development schemes in the region on behalf of the Centre. The final step, if needed, is to make use of official machinery in their favour. Under the Election Act 2017, visits of public office holders to the region were barred after the announcement of the election schedule. However, like most other regulations, it remained ineffective. Federal ministers addressed public rallies and Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the provisional provincial status for the region ahead of polls.

Though the assembly has limited legislative powers, yet the elections have great importance for the local people and the region, especially for the Kashmir cause after India has changed the special status of occupied Kashmir. Locals say sectarian harmony is disturbed in every election as candidates fan sectarianism to woo voters. It also spoils the credibility of polls. The PTI won 11 seats of the 24, while the two largest opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), won three seats and two seats respectively. Seven seats were won by independent candidates. The Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen, a religious party alliance, won one seat. The Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly consists of 24 directly elected seats, besides nine reserved seats for women and political appointees that are allocated based on a proportional representation basis. The house has 33 seats in total.

The PPP and the PML-N alleged rigging and foul play after the election. The PPP even gave a call for protests in the region against the alleged rigging as Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari warned Islamabad of “dire consequences if the rigging in elections is not reversed”. It is interesting that the PPP had won only one seat in the last election, but it accepted the results because its political ally, the PMN-N, won with a two-thirds majority. The PPP has won three seats this time, though it had fielded candidates for all constituencies, yet the party cried foul after Bilawal ran an extensive campaign and stayed in the region for almost a month. On the other hand, the PML-N had fielded candidates for seven seats only, but still its leaders claimed a landslide victory in the polls. Experts saw the elections as a test case for the popularity of the country’s three major political parties. Despite being part of the anti-government alliance PDM, the country’s two main opposition parties — the PPP and PML-N — contested the elections against each other. The PTI’s position improved after a number of local leaders and seasoned politicians, who had previously won the elections on PPP and PML-N tickets, joined the party. The PPP and PML-N alleged that their candidates were pressured into joining the ruling party. More than 15,000 police officials from the Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan performed duties at polling stations.

Historically, polls in the region are won by the ruling party in the Centre. However, the PPP and the PML-N attempted to change the mind of the voters through propaganda that the PTI would be kicked out of power in a few months and they would form the new government in Pakistan. However, the propaganda failed to a large extent. The polls also laid bare rifts in the opposition alliance and the ruling coalition. The PML-N and the PPP failed to forge an election alliance and contested the election separately, though they avoided criticizing each other. However, former PML-N Chief Minister Hafiz-ur-Rehman accused Bilawal Bhutto of using Sindh resources in the elections. On the other hand, the PTI and its important ally in the Punjab, the PML-Q, contested the election independently, which shows the widening differences between them.

It is a common practice in Pakistan that ruling parties win local government, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan elections, because people think only the ruling party can provide funds to solve their issues. The PTI won because of its government in the Centre. However, its victory is not as comprehensive as that of the previous ruling parties. The biggest loser in the election was the PML-N, which could bag only two seats after a landslide victory in the previous polls. The failure of its anti-establishment narrative shows its space is shrinking in national politics. The PPP’s performance was impressive as Bilawal Bhutto’s rallies attracted huge crowds. Like the rest of the country, “electables” played a crucial role in the elections. It shows all mainstream parties will have to work hard to reorganize themselves to eliminate the role of independent candidates or the same cycle would be repeated in the next election.