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January 22, 2021

Gilgit-Baltistan: after the elections


January 22, 2021

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Amidst claims and counter-claims of transparency and rigging, the general elections in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) took place in a relatively peaceful environment in all 24 constituencies of its legislative assembly.

It was for the first time in the political history of GB that all the major political parties of the country took part in a frantic election campaign run by their top leadership. A month-long election campaign orchestrated by the PPP under the leadership of Bilawal Bhutto set the political tone, which was then followed by the PTI and PML-N both.

‘Following the political euphoria of granting provincial status and determining the political future for more internal autonomy, the people of GB once again proved to be pragmatic in their political choice to go with the ruling party in the federation’. This is the most frequently stated argument about the outcome of GB general elections. Even the PTI leadership was quick to announce its victory with this note of ‘conventional political pragmatism of the people of GB’ as a key factor to win the elections.

The political rationale of the victory thus articulated by the PTI leadership was challenged by the PPP and PML-N on the ground of lack of transparency and what they termed as ‘pre-poll rigging’ by the federal government. From the perspective of ‘conventional political pragmatism’ the outcome of general elections in GB has always been predictable and anyone with a modicum of political sense could see the PTI as victorious.

However, the inexorable political campaign by Bilawal Bhutto in the elections was seen by many political pundits as an X factor to dislodge this conventional pragmatism. It was believed that the PPP would bag at least 8 seats out of 24 because of the overwhelming response by people in political rallies. In the longest ever election campaign of his political career, Bilawal Bhutto too looked optimistic to form the government in GB. With his untiring journey on the rough and bumpy roads far and wide in GB, Bilawal was not only able to reconnect with the old disgruntled party workers (the jiyalas) but also mobilized new support amongst the youth. Beyond the media images of big rallies, there were also some widespread rumors of a possible deal between PPP and the power corridors to form a government in GB.

However, the situation started to gravitate more towards the ruling PTI with the prime minister’s visit to GB on Nov 01, 2020 and his subsequent accouchement to make GB the fifth province of Pakistan – though the statement of the prime minister was seen by many as a political stunt to influence the outcome of the elections because of the legal and political impediments and Pakistan’s official stance on the dispute of Jammu and Kashmir. But Ali Amin Gandapur and Murad Saeed did the trick through incentives and deals to garner the support of influential locals and the people. This was termed as ‘pre-poll rigging’ by the opposition and was challenged in the local courts by the PPP and the PML-N.

Protests were also staged in front of the offices of the election commission and local administration to dissuade the PTI from announcing economic and political packages to influence election outcomes. None of these moves helped prevent the PTI’s violation of the Election Act 2017, which restricts a ruling party and its ministers from launching campaigns after the announcement of the election schedule.

The PPP and the PML-N claimed that the PTI’s continued violation of the Election Act 2017 and what they termed ‘visible rigging of election results in GBLA 2’ led to some violent protests in Gilgit town and recounting of votes was deliberately delayed. The defiance of PPP and PML-N workers against these irregularities continued for many days which led to incidents of arson and the death of a citizen during a mob frenzy.

The elections, which otherwise remained peaceful for the most part, ended up getting violent because of the controversial recounting of postal ballots. Despite a prolonged public campaign, the PPP and PML-N could only win five seats together (PPP three and PML-N two) against the 16 seats of the PTI to the chagrin of those who hoped that the ‘ conventional pragmatism of GB’ , would not be the norm this time.

Many political analysts, nonetheless, missed out on an important dimension during the GB elections’ debate – the institutional and structural relationship of the federal government and GB, which is governed by financial dependence and resource centralism. GB neither has the financial revenues nor the political capacity to enter into a partnership deal with the federal government or demand some sort of reciprocity under its current mode of governance. However, it is important to note that this mountainous region of the country is full of resources which can be harnessed to generate immense revenues in particular from hydropower generation, mining and tourism – to mention a few.

There are studies which say that GB has the hydropower potential of some 50,000 megawatts which can resolve Pakistan’s chronic energy crisis and can save billions of dollars currently spent on oil import for power generation. In 2020, some 1.5 million domestic and foreign tourists visited GB despite the poor communication and accommodation infrastructure. The actual tourism potential of GB is much higher, and it could become one of the most lucrative revenue generation industries if the government invests to improve tourism infrastructure.

The geology of GB contains large deposits of minerals including metallic, non-metallic, energy minerals, precious and dimension stones, and rocks of varying industrial value. The mining industry can bring billions of dollars to the national exchequer if high-value Topaz, Peridot, Emerald, Morganite, and Tourmaline are extracted from the mountains of GB. In addition to this, surveys also suggest that there is a variety of rock formations in GB which contain a large amount of precious metals like Gold, Gypsum, Chalcopyrite and Uranium.

GB’s perennial issue of economic dependence and its corollary – political subordination – can be overcome only through long-term investments in these key sectors of economic growth. The current peripheral political relationship and financial dependence on the central government can be reversed if the local leadership starts taking the onus of policy formulation for inclusive development. The GB government must engage sector specialists and policy experts to devise a roadmap of 30 years for socioeconomic transformation and inclusive growth from indigenous resources.

Many political experts believe that the Lilliputian politics of the PTI’s national leadership has been counterproductive for the development of the country but one hopes that the newly formed government in GB starts thinking big. The chief minister of GB and his team has to go a long way to address the longstanding issues of unemployment, malnourishment, poor rural connectivity, energy crisis and climate change.

There is no magic bullet or fanciful shortcut to overcome the mounting problems of GB but the region needs policies to start moving in the right direction. The key sectors of economic growth and development must be governed by legal and policy instruments rather than the ad-hoc arrangements of short-term economic and political gains.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76