By Tilak Devasher
The run-up to and the results of the keenly contested November 15 election to the Legislative Assembly in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) could have far-reaching consequences for the region and for Pakistan.
Bilawal Bhutto set the tone by arriving in the area weeks ahead of other political leaders. His high decibel campaign set the standard, forcing others to emulate him. His impressive campaigning should stand him in good stead in his future political career.
Maryam Nawaz followed Bilawal to GB and also undertook several rallies and campaigned across the region during her seven-day stay. In her speeches, she remained focused on Imran Khan and his ‘selected, rejected’ government.
Imran Khan visited Gilgit briefly on November 1 to announce that GB would be granted ‘provisional’ provincial status, a thinly disguised ploy to win. However, the PTI campaign was marked by the obnoxious and sexist comments of Ali Amin Gandapur, federal minister for Kashmir affairs. He stated at a rally that Maryam was beautiful, ‘but only because she has spent millions of taxpayer money on surgeries to look the way she does. He went on to target Bilawal Bhutto in similar fashion, asking him to ‘be a man’.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) boosted its electoral chances by poaching 10 leaders from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Not surprisingly, it emerged as the single-largest party, winning nine seats out of the 24 being contested directly but fell short of a simple majority to form the government. Independents won six seats, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) three seats, PML-N and others one each. Election in one seat was postponed due to the death of a candidate that was subsequently won by the PTI. With five independents joining the party, the PTI would form the government. However, the fact that the PTI could not win a majority on its own reflects Imran Khan’s lack of popularity in GB. In fact, in the absence of PML-N turncoats, the PTI would have come in third.
The credibility of the elections was marred by serious charges of rigging. The independent Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) reported an average of three illegalities or irregularities per polling station. According to its preliminary report, the irregularities included breach of secrecy of the vote, stamping of ballots by others on behalf of voters and the prevention of registered voters to cast their ballots. There were cases where excess and fake postal ballot papers were issued leading to many of them being misused. In several areas, women were barred from voting. In many cases, observers were asked to leave the polling stations before counting began. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Gilgit Union of Journalists confirmed this.
Both the PPP and the PML-N rejected the results, with Bilawal coining a new slogan: ‘Vote per daaka namanzoor’, a slogan that is gaining popularity in GB. Maryam tweeted that the PTI’s inability to get a ‘simple majority despite worst rigging and changing loyalties through full state power, government institutions, government machinery and black tactics’ was actually a ‘shameful defeat’.
Due to the electoral fraud, a series of protests have broken out in the region, forcing the caretaker government to seek the army’s assistance to control the security situation, especially in Gilgit and Chilas.
A notable feature of the elections in GB (and so-called Azad Jammu Kashmir) was that the ruling party in Islamabad had the edge. On the previous two occasions, the PPP in 2009 and the PML-N in 2015 had won majorities when they were in power at the centre. For the establishment it was important to make sure that the region followed the Islamabad line so that there was uniformity of messaging from Pakistan on the Kashmir issue.
The elections took place against the backdrop of the larger political confrontation between the PTI and the opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). This was the underlying theme of the campaign rather than local issues and developmental needs. Not surprisingly, the PTI claimed that the poll outcome demolished the opposition’s narrative; the PPP and PML-N asserted that the results were due to rigging.
There were three takeaways from the election. Though both the PML-N and PPP fared poorly, the PDM’s campaign and narrative have actually got a fillip. It has obtained fresh ammunition of rigging and political engineering, strengthening its overall narrative of the establishment’s interference in politics and ‘selecting’ governments. The PDM used this effectively in its November 22 rally at Peshawar. However, by allowing a month’s gap between the Quetta and Peshawar rallies to account for the GB election, the PDM could well have lost some of the momentum the first three rallies had generated.
Second, GB election, together with the 2008 general election, is indicative of the establishment’s new play-list of political engineering — leave the ‘selected’ government short of a majority and make up the deficit with smaller parties and independents. While such a strategy would produce a government beholden to the establishment for survival, it is unlikely to provide a stable government.
Third, with the elections over, it remains to be seen if Imran Khan would redeem his pledge of making GB the fifth province of Pakistan. This would require constitutional amendments for which he will have to take the opposition on board, something that he is loath to do. It will also require an examination how such a move would impact Pakistan’s position on the J&K issue and have implications for India.
Tactically, the army has succeeded in ensuring that the PTI cobbles a majority to form the government. In the long run, however, it has given the PDM further ammunition to push its agenda of the establishment’s interference in politics. With this narrative gathering steam, the establishment could well rue rigging the GB elections.
(The author is geo-political analyst and member, National Security Board, New Delhi. The contents of the article are his personal views and not necessarily reflect the policy of the newspaper.)