By: SAJJAD AHMAD
On June 8, Gilgit-Baltistan goes to the polls for elections to its legislative assembly. Already in the run-up to the polls, two major contestants — the PML-N and PPP — have started accusing each other of pre-poll rigging.
While PPP considers the PML-N’s act of installing a governor before the election as tantamount to a conspiracy, PML-N accuses previous governor and PPP leader Qamar Zaman Kaira of interventions aiming to turn the results in his party’s favour. The allegations by both parties’ leaders are indicative of GB’s flawed electoral process.
More importantly, they are evidence of meddling by federal officials in GB’s elections, as the region is largely controlled and governed by the powerful federal ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, and the bureaucracy. It is also believed that since the ruling political party at the centre forms the caretaker government in GB before the elections, pre-poll rigging will be encouraged.
Apart from local nationalist parties that accuse Islamabad of interfering in GB’s political and economic affairs including its electoral process, mainstream national parties have also levelled serious allegations against each other. In the previous election during Mr Kaira’s governorship, GB had a handpicked election commissioner. PML-N GB chief Hafizur Rehman accused Kaira of registering thousands of bogus votes to turn the result in the PPP’s favour.
With computerised voter lists being compiled recently for the forthcoming elections, over 20,000 voters were removed from the GB constituency of LA-2 alone; the updated list now shows the total number of voters here as 33,733. These numbers, from just one constituency, indicate massive rigging attempts in previous elections.
In the upcoming polls, similar allegations are being levelled against the PML-N by a number of political parties, including the PPP and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, a new entrant in GB elections.
The appointment of the minister of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, Chaudhry Muhammad Barjees Tahir, as governor of GB raised many eyebrows. Not that this was the first time a non-local was appointed governor — Mr Kaira was also appointed to the post when it was created under the GB Empowerment and Self-governance Order 2009. However, Mr Tahir’s appointment on the prime minister’s advice only a few months ahead of the polls alarmed many and is widely considered an attempt to rig the election.
Some actions by the PML-N government in the pre-poll period are perceived as part of an effort to win the people’s hearts. During Nawaz Sharif’s visit to GB — his first since assuming office — the premier announced Rs47.2 billion worth of development schemes in the area, a move seen by many political analysts as part of the strategy to influence the electorate. The reality is that GB is neglected by mainstream national leaders who only pay visits to the region before elections and make feeble promises to resolve its issues.
The prime minister also made such a promise when he announced the formation of a committee to deal with the region’s constitutional status and held out assurances that the recommendations of this committee would be implemented. While other political parties termed this surety a sham, local nationalist parties dismissed it as a ploy to win the sympathies of the people. Nationalist leader Nawaz Khan Naji of Balawaristan National Front criticised Mr Sharif’s announcement and accused the governments in Islamabad of preventing the people of GB from exercising their right to govern their region since 1948.
Three similar committees in the past have already failed to deliver. The first one was formed in 1975 by then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, followed by another by Gen Zia. The third committee was constituted during Asif Ali Zardari’s presidency. All three attempts miserably failed to fulfil their mandate. Since its independence from Dogra rule, GB has been governed on an ad hoc basis from Islamabad. There has been no change in the area’s constitutional anomaly which hampers its political and economic development.
Apart from apprehensions of pre-poll rigging, the security of polling stations is also a major concern. Chief Election Commissioner Tahir Ali Shah has declared 119 polling stations in GB as ‘highly sensitive’ and 153 as ‘sensitive’. The monitoring of the electoral process and security of the polling stations are prerequisites to ensure free, fair and ‘fear-less’ elections. Considering the area’s vast, mountainous terrain and resource-starved though highly motivated local police, providing security would be an arduous challenge.
If the government is serious about offering the people of GB a chance to elect their future leaders, it must take concerted measures to avoid the perception of pre-poll rigging. It is also imperative for the people to exercise their right to vote. The elections are a chance for them to elect those leaders they believe would be able to deliver. Voting for personalities alone, as has been the traditional practice in GB, would plunge the region further into a quagmire.
Writer : SAJJAD AHMAD
The writer is a senior research fellow at the University of Karachi.