From Gujranwala, to Karachi and then to Quetta; the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM) offensive against the Imran Khan-led government progressively built up pressure with each rally – before abruptly coming to a halt. While many termed this lull in activities the inevitable dissipation of momentum that PDM had carried, in reality the conflict still rages. The election in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) has taken centre stage in this political face-off.
The November 15 polls would be a litmus test for the government performance, as well as a metric to judge if the combined opposition’s narrative has resonated with the people of the GB.
Previously, the region had little autonomy and had to cooperate with the federal government to function. Hence the opposition parties never campaigned for elections. As a result the region has always been won by the party in power in the centre, but this time things could be different. For the first time, GB will elect a largely autonomous government, which is why the opposition is vigorously campaigning for electoral victory.
What are the three political parties offering the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, and what have their policies been in the past?
PML-N: a legacy of development
On Thursday, Vice President of the PMLN Maryam Nawaz termed Imran Khan’s promise of making Gilgit-Baltistan a separate province a lie. The comment came as Maryam Nawaz addressed a public gathering in Skardu.
She asked why the PTI government let the issue lie dormant for the past two years, and why has it been revived ahead of the election, hinting that the PTI has no intentions of following through with the promise but are using it as a political tool to garner votes in the upcoming elections.
Demanding the attendees of the public rally to reject those who shift political allegiances according to personal benefit, she commented that such people fail to prioritise the interests of the public in the face of pressure. “Today, politicking has changed. And it should change,” she told the crowd. “Those who remain loyal to their party and aren’t sell-outs, deserve votes.”
This continuation of the PDM narrative is likely to be the campaign narrative that PMLN will employ in Gilgit-Baltistan as Maryam comes to the region on a 7-day visit to spearhead the PMLN’s election camping for the GB polls. Maryam Nawaz will also hold rallies in Gahkuch, Ghizer, Astore and Chilas.
The PMLN’s policy in the past for GB has been two-fold; development and autonomy. In 2018, under PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the party came up with a new framework for GB that granted the region greater autonomy by dissolving the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, restricting the federal government’s power in the regions and allowing the legislative assembly to legislate on additional subjects. This move was popular in the region as it was in line with demands for greater political participation and autonomy.
The latter part of PMLN’s policy for the region hinged on development and greater integration. Under the Chief Minister Gilgit Baltistan Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman of PMLN, the budget of GB was raised up to Rs 24 billion in the first three years of the party’s government. PMLN upgraded existing roads in the region with repair and upgrade works, in addition to raising Kharmung and Shigar to the status of districts of GB.
This integration of GB was not limited to roads but also extended to legal frameworks; for the first time plans were made to include GB in national councils and committees such as National Economic Council, National Finance Commission and Indus River System Authority.
Maryam’s campaigning in Gilgit-Baltistan draws on these policies and creates a narrative of development and prosperity of PMLN, in opposition to painting PTI’s tenure as marred with inflation and falling living standards. This is being done in tandem with the PDM narrative; the PMLN is using this election campaign to also tighten grass-root party mobilisation.
PPP: subsides and the Bhutto name
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was the first to kick off the election campaign in Gilgit-Baltistan ahead of the polls. He arrived in the region on 25th October, choosing his party’s election campaign over the opposition alliance’s Quetta jalsa (which he addressed through a video-link speech).
The PPP leader is on an all-round tour of Gilgit-Baltistan for 23 days, visiting the 23 out of 24 constituencies in the region. The PPP is currently leading the most expansive campaign in the region, with daily corner meetings and holding large public rallies that draw from the historic vote bank that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto created for the PPP in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Much like the PMLN, PPP is also running a campaign on prosperity and pro-people policies, making speeches about added subsidies to the region and a greater budget. PPP leader Murtaza Wahab also made claims of establishing a satellite unit of the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases (NICVD) in that region if the party wins, to improve access to healthcare as part of social policy.
PPP has a historic vote bank in the region since the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who legislated to provide large federal subsidies to the region on items such as food, fuel and clothes. The subsidy on 1,500,000 bags continues till today in a region where a bag of 40 kilogrammes is available for about Rs600 to Rs700 – almost 50% less than what is charged in Punjab.
“Imran Khan wants to snatch the subsidy given (to the GB people) by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on food items, petrol and clothes but the PPP will not allow this to happen,” he said criticising the PTI government while asking the voters to give PPP a landslide victory due to its services for the people of the region.
The 2008 PPP government was also the first one to give some autonomy to the region. The 2008 GB Order established a legislative assembly for the first time and won the first general election of GB. The Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government was also the one to dismantle the colonial-era Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) that had draconian laws and facilitated extreme government powers in the region.
The PPP, he said, would not only give a full-fledged status of a province to GB but also the right to rule and the rights of property and employment to its people.
Bilawal has also used these policies of the past to urge the people to give their verdict against the “puppet Prime Minister”. The salient points on which the PPP is running their camping are social uplifting of the region through subsidies, better health facilities, employment opportunities in addition to greater self-governance for GB.
But along with all this, the Bilawal has also made comments that are in line with the PDM narrative such as calling Imran Khan an ineffective leader and threatening mass protests if GB polls are meddled with to give advantage to any particular party.
Interestingly, PPP has not criticised the last government of GB, which was PMLN’s, but have kept their offensive towards the PTI.
PTI: Connectivity and provincial status
The centre’s ruling party is confident that GB will continue its tradition of supporting centre government and elect a majority of PTI legislators again. Minister for Information and Broadcasting Senator Shibli Faraz Friday said people of Gilgit-Baltistan had rejected Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would win the upcoming election in the northern areas.
Furthermore, Shibli Faraz criticised the PPP and PMLN for having a total of 10 years in the region and failing to uplift it in any meaningful way. PTI has never held government in the region, hence has the “new-option” card that it also played in the 2018 general elections.
The PTI Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan Ali Amin Gandapur, while addressing a gathering in Aliabad Hunza, attacked the opposition, saying that Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal were responsible for delaying the “provisional province” status for Gilgit-Baltistan.
PTI campaign is based on youth and technology. Gandapur promised that if PTI came to power, it would solve the GB connectivity issue that was ignored by previous governments; he promised 3G/4G connection for the region. Furthermore, the PTI has plans for various development projects and administrative divisions for Hunza.
Responding to the demand for the release of incarcerated Hunza youth, Federal Minister Ali Amin Gandapur has said that the imprisoned youth will be freed with the declaration of a provincial status.
He further said that the Aliabad Tunnel project would improve irrigation water, helping with agriculture and access to clean drinking water. Along with a stadium for youth and sports, and increasing tourism as a means of employment for the population, the minister promised loans to the tourism sector to increase spending in the region.
Lastly, PTI also promised the people of GB better access to healthcare by making more hospitals in the region.
The PTI has focused their campaign on promises of provisional provincial status and criticising the past governments of PPP and PMLN in the region while keeping attention away from their performance in the rest of the administrative units they have governments in.
All eyes on Gilgit-Baltistan
This election is in the limelight of national politics because, after two years of performance in the centre, the PTI is hoping to regain public support and this election will prove a vote of the people’s confidence. On the other hand, PMLN has been pushed out of power from all provinces, gaining the GB government will be their entry into the system once again. PPP, on the other hand, with the recent leadership of Bilawal, is looking to expand just beyond Sindh and become a national political force again; GB provides fertile ground for this ambition of the PPP.
However, the opposition is unsure of how popular the PDM narrative will be, and this election provides an answer to that question. If the PMLN makes great gains on this, the PDM narrative might be pursued with renewed vigour. On the converse, if PPP wins, will they be willing to risk not one but two governments (Sindh and possibly GB) to pursue an aggressive narrative whose prime architect is Nawaz Sharif, and from which PPP stands to gain but little?