THE prospect of yet another political victory for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) should not surprise the government’s critics looking at the outcome of elections for a new provincial administration in Gilgit-Baltistan.
According to unofficial results the PML-N won 15 of the 24 seats in elections for the GB Legislative Assembly held last Monday.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) whose claim to victory in the region has indeed been the decision of granting the status of a province to Gilgit-Baltistan albeit a half-baked one found itself bearing the brunt of popular resentment. With just one successful winner in the 24-member provincial legislature, the PPP indeed fell from grace significantly.
For months, Islamabad’s power corridors have been abuzz with rumours of a concerted push by the ruling authorities to conclusively take charge of Gilgit-Baltistan. The appointment of Birjis Tahir, a PML-N stalwart from Punjab, federal minister and loyalist of the prime minister, as the provincial governor just months before the polls clearly suggested the determined mood in Islamabad. It was obvious that the PML-N ruling structure in its zealous pursuit to establish a clear foothold in Gilgit-Baltistan was unwilling to leave anything to chance.
The final outcome has also sidelined political parties with a clear-cut commitment to using Islam as their main rallying cry. The rout of Islamic parties such as the Majlis-i-Wahdat-i-Muslimeen (MWM) — a predominantly Shia political party — clearly points towards this trend as was the case with its rivals representing Sunnis. MWM and Islami Tehreek bagged two seats each.
For some observers, the rejection of Islamic parties came in line with prevailing popular thinking. In previous years, bloody attacks on Shias heading to and from Gilgit-Baltistan on the Karakorum Highway highlighted a dangerous trend, just like other parts of Pakistan. Shias form the majority of Gilgit-Baltistan’s population. “Our people are simply tired of sectarian hatred being used for politics,” said a senior journalist based in Gilgit. “It seems the final outcome in favour of mainstream parties was the result of the rejection of religious parties,” he added.
Meanwhile, the PML-N’s victory which now gives it enough seats to form a government with a simple majority, says much about the strength of the incumbency factor. “People who voted in Gilgit-Baltistan were probably swayed by the presence of a PML-N governor [Birjis Tahir] in addition to knowing that the federal government is also run by the PML-N,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a respected commentator on politics and national security. Dr Rizvi believes the outcome of the Gilgit-Baltistan election should not be a surprise to anyone who understands the way “the incumbency factor” works in Pakistan’s politics.
Notwithstanding a sense of victory among the PML-N’s rank and file, there is another side to this outcome which has the capacity to influence trends in the coming times. Beyond the immediate victory, the PML-N now faces compelling questions over exactly how it will rule Giligt-Baltistan under a new mandate.
That question indeed becomes more compelling amid evidence of a deepening crisis of governance all across Pakistan including Gilgit-Baltistan, almost seven years after the country returned to civilian rule. For Sharif and other key politicians, this is indeed a tough moment of reckoning.
“I am not so worried about what happens in the coming weeks or the appointment of a new chief minister,” says a senior UN official with prior experience of dealing with the last administration of former chief minister Mehdi Shah of the PPP. Citing cases where the former government neglected popular needs in a number of areas notably healthcare and education, the UN official adds that “the elections clearly show popular resentment with the way the former government performed so poorly”. In spite of the PML-N’s victory, notes the UN official, there is no evidence of “the future of Gilgit-Baltistan being different from the way this region has been run in the past”.
Meanwhile, according to Dr Rizvi, the losses for Islamic political parties came in line with the known behaviour of voters in Pakistan. “We have a history of Islamic political parties usually showing a limited appeal for voters,” he said. “The same trend has repeated itself in the Gilgit-Baltistan election.”
For groups such as the MWM though the election results are clearly a disappointment, the political battle has just begun. An MWM leader who spoke on condition of anonymity left little doubt over his group’s future strategy when he said: “an election victory for the PML-N is just one victory. In Pakistan, running a government is far from easy. There will be challenges for the new government as we go forward.”
As the debate continues over exactly how the political pendulum swung so sharply in Gilgit-Baltistan away from the PPP towards the PML-N, the future of this region may well become a key barometer for Pakistan’s own destiny. In recent months, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC has frequently been discussed as an important game changer for the country’s future. Yet, the success of this venture may well depend on the extent to which Gilgit-Baltistan located on China’s border remains stable before it can effectively become the main gateway to this exceedingly vital project.