Elections will be held on Thursday for a 24-member Legislative Assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan, as part of a package of “autonomy” reforms recently announced by Pakistan for the disputed territory.
India claims the territory as part of the Jammu & Kashmir state, and has lodged protests with Islamabad over the announcement of political reforms in the territory, which come close to giving it a province-like status without constitutionally declaring it as one.
Kashmiris have opposed the move, as they believe it is a tacit acceptance by the Pakistani government of the status quo on the Kashmir issue, and will undermine their cause.
Under the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-governance) Order 2009 announced in September, the Legislative Assembly will replace the previous Northern Areas Legislative Council.
The NALC was an elected body but had no more than an advisory role to the representative of the federal government, the Minister for Kashmir and Northern Areas, who ruled the territory from Islamabad.
The Legislative Assembly is an improvement over the council. Besides its directly elected members, it will have nine nominated members, six of whom will be women and three technocrats. It will have powers to pass a budget and make laws on 61 subjects, but the list excludes certain key subjects such as the natural resources of the area, including water and minerals.
A Chief Minister elected by the largest political party or grouping after the election will form the government and the region will get a Governor, just like any other province of Pakistan. Real power is still expected to be wielded by the federally-appointed Governor, through a 12-member Legislative Council, half of whose members will be nominated by him.
All the major political parties of Pakistan are represented in Gilgit-Baltistan. Despite its remoteness, the region saw a fair amount of high-velocity campaigning. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani made two trips and Pakistan Muslim league (N) leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif undertook a whirlwind campaign that is said to have boosted the party’s chances considerably.
Earlier elections, held for the Northern Areas Legislative Council, always produced results that were in consonance with the ruling arrangement in Islamabad.
This time too, it is expected to be no different. Reports are suggesting a hung Assembly, with PPP poised to win the most number of seats, but perhaps falling short of a majority just as in Islamabad.
The party enjoys a natural advantage in the area because the majority of its people are Shia Ismailis, who view the PPP as the most minority-friendly political entity in Pakistan.
The PML(N) and the former ruling party, the PML(Q), are not badly placed either. But the party being watched closely is the MQM, whose main base is Karachi, but which wants to establish itself in other places too. It has entered the fray in Gilgit-Baltistan for the first time. The military, the ultimate stakeholder in the region, is said to hold considerable influence.
Visiting Skardu on Tuesday, two days before the election, Mr. Gilani announced several pre-election sops including development schemes and declaring Skardu and Gilgit as “major cities” and the upgrading of the Skardu airport to international standards to attract tourists.