Gilgit-Baltistan on high as voters go to polls today

November 12, 2009 by  

ISLAMABAD: The people of Gilgit-Baltistan will go to the polls on Thursday to elect a new legislative assembly that will enjoy more powers under political reforms introduced by the government recently to accord the region more autonomy.

More than 250 candidates are in the running for 23 seats. The winners will elect members for nine reserved seats — six for women and three for technocrats.

Polling in one constituency of Ghizer district was put off after the death of a candidate.

All major parties of the country have fielded their candidates.

Visits by top leaders like Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Mian Nawaz Sharif, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan have electrified the dormant political scene of the region.

Entry of new players in the fray has broken the grip of two-party politics and is giving a tough time to traditional politicians.

However, independent observers see the Pakistan People’s Party as better placed to win, though not with a big margin.

Although there are eight political, nationalist and ethnic parties in the fray, only the PPP, PML-N, PML-Q and MQM are likely to make significant pickings.

The Pakistan People’s Party has fielded 23 candidates, Muttahida Qaumi Movement 19, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, 15, PML-Q 14 and Awami National Party three. The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl), Balawaristan National Front, Jamaat-i-Islami and Tehrik-i-Insaaf have fielded two candidates each.

The Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance, which comprises four nationalist groups, has boycotted the polls in four constituencies in protest against what it calls a pre-poll rigging plan and harassment of candidates. It will now contest six seats.

The regional election commission has set up 989 polling stations for 714,966 voters, including 330,391 women.

Most of the candidates are old guns who have been in and out of politics over the past three decades.

However, a few new and young faces have been fielded by some parties.

None of them has a programme for the well-being of the neglected region. The PPP has been employing various tactics to win the polls. The prime minister and some federal ministers have visited the region and made announcements which the party’s opponents consider as part of pre-poll rigging.

The ruling party, despite a leadership crisis, is still in a better position, but it has failed to nurture and groom its young cadre. ‘The stagnant structure of the PPP in the region has stunted the growth of its vote bank,’ says Aziz Ali Dad, a young social activist.

Nevertheless the people of Gilgit-Baltistan still idolise the party’s founder, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as he was the first Pakistani leader to address the misery of the poor in the region, especially of Hunza-Nagar, by liberating them from the despotic rule of the two former princely states.

It was his party that gave them the right to franchise.

Religious parties have witnessed a sharp decline in their support and vote bank after dominating the political scene in the 1990s. However, they have a strong influence in Gilgit city and adjoining areas.

‘Another factor that influences election outcomes is kinship-based politics which is stronger in some constituencies of Gilgit and Diamer districts, while Baltistan is racially, religiously and linguistically homogenous to a great extent.

Therefore, its electoral dynamics, to some extent, is at variance with other regions,’ says Aziz Ali Dad.

But a new powerful entrepreneur class which has benefited from border trade and commerce on the Karakoram Highway, tourism, timber trade, contracts and transportation will play a pivotal role as a sizable number of its members are in the field.

The MQM has entered the political arena of Gilgit-Baltistan for the first time.

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