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October 29, 2020

Nov 15 GB elections: Bilawal leading poll campaign from the front

National

October 29, 2020

ISLAMABAD: The campaign of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) elections on November 15 has so far been non-existent, mainly because of the absence in the region of its frontline national leaders. The PML-N had swept the previous 2015 polls in Gilgit-Baltistan.

The party’s campaign is likely to kick off when PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz visits the area. The absence of the PML-N’s senior leaders indicates that the party has not attached the importance to the polls that they deserve. The party had performed impressively in 2015 when it was in power at the Centre. How it fares when it is in opposition and under a pressure we will only learn on November 15.

In sharp contrast to the PML-N, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been running a full-throttled election campaign in the area for the past week and will stay in GB for another two weeks. The fact that he has been addressing rallies in every part of GB and leading the campaign from the front has buoyed the PPP rank and file in the area.

Bilawal has given so much weight and importance to the GB polls that he physically skipped the third Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) power show in Quetta on October 25 and was content to address it via video link. Bilawal is the only national leader who has taken the GB elections seriously so far. He has remained focused on the polls and is single-mindedly displaying a burning urge to win. A good result for the PPP in GB would pull it out of the difficult state it found itself in after the 2018 general elections, when it was virtually reduced to its stronghold in Sindh. A strong showing in GB will help revive the PPP’s position as a national party with an appeal in every region of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) governments of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are handicapped in participating in the GB election campaign under the Elections Act, 2017.

The intense or lacklustre poll campaigns of the three major parties notwithstanding, the PML-N, PPP and PTI have fielded candidates for almost all the 24 directly contested seats. Some 745,000 registered voters will exercise their right of franchise.

The 33-member GBLA is a uni-cameral legislative body that was formed as part of the GB Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009, which granted the region self-rule and an elected legislative assembly. The upcoming elections were scheduled to be held on Aug 18 but were postponed to Nov 15 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 2009 reform package grants some legislative powers to the GBLA but most of the important subjects remain with the GB Council, which has been created on the pattern of the Azad Kashmir Council. The prime minister of Pakistan is its chairman.

In September 2009, the then president, Asif Ali Zardari, signed the GB Empowerment and Self-governance Order, aimed at introducing far-reaching administrative, political, financial and judicial reforms in the Northern Areas, which were renamed Gilgit-Baltistan. It is under this order that GB now has an elected assembly with a chief minister.

A proposal was recently discussed that GB be given the status of a province/federating unit of Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major political parties had a meeting with Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa on the issue.. Political parties differ on according the status of a province to GB. The PML-N and PPP have reservations on the idea. However, depending on its composition, the new GBLA might pass a resolution to the effect.

The PPP and PML-N have also voiced their concerns over the security arrangements for the November elections. However, the GB Election Commission has announced that it will hold transparent polls. Police and security personnel will be deputed at polling stations while the Pakistan Army will be positioned outside sensitive stations.

Regardless of the impact of the results of the GB elections on the overall national politics of Pakistan, the region is strategically very important as it is located at the junction of China, Central and South Asia and Afghanistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor covers a distance of almost 600 kilometers in GB, giving the area a high profile geo-politically.

Gilgit-Baltistan covers 72,971 square kilometers and is estimated to have a population of 1.3 million. It was previously known as the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA). It is an autonomous region in northern Pakistan with separate government and electoral systems. In 1970, it became a single administrative unit called the Northern Areas under the administrative control of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas. It was formed by the amalgamation of the Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan District of the Ladakh Wazarat and the former princely states of Hunza and Nagar.