Winners and losers
After extensive election campaigns by Pakistan Muslims League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the results of the elections in Gilgit Baltistan were announced on Monday. According to unofficial results, PTI won 10 seats, followed by independent candidates with seven seats and then PPP with three.
Experts are divided on whether or not the results are surprising. On the one hand, GB has always voted for the party in rule in federal, meanwhile PPP has won more seats than expected and PML-N’s performance is being seen as exceptionally disappointing. Analysts maintain that it was the first test for the PML-N ‘anti-establishment’ stance and seemingly the people of GB rejected it. Meanwhile, observers believe that PPP’s ‘not so hard’ position against the military seems to have partially worked.
Commenting on the situation, analyst Imran Khan said that PML-N doesn’t understand that people will not accept its rigid stance against the military. “Bilawal understood it and he also ran a long election campaign in the region,” he says.
Meanwhile, the supporters think it will be a counter move to India’s August 5 step, which ended the autonomy of IOK after relegation of Article 370 of Indian constitution. The voices in support have increased in the recent past.
A vital development in the lead up to the elections was that Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to give GB provincial status, which all parties agreed to beforehand. “We have made a decision to grant provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, which has long been the demand here,” Khan said during a speech in the region. Experts say that if implemented, the provincial assembly of GB will be more powerful and assertive in broad-ranging administrative and governance issues.
The announcement is also extremely critical with regards to the Kashmir issue. The region has been a bone of contention between Pakistan and India since 1947. On one hand Pakistan claims that Kashmir, including Indian-occupied Kashmir (IOK), Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) and GB are integral parts of the country, while New Delhi claims the same. Hence, the implications of giving GB the status of province, will not only impact local politics but also the regional political and security scenario.
As expected, right after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement, India issued a strong rebuttal as the foreign ministry spokesperson stated: “I reiterate that the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, including the area of so-called ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’, are an integral part of India by virtue of the legal, complete and irrevocable accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Union of India in 1947.”
And not so surprisingly, Islamabad issued the statement on similar lines as the foreign ministry said: “Administrative, political and economic reforms are a long-standing demand of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.” The spokesperson further stated that the envisaged provincial reforms are the reflection of the people of GB.
It is pertinent to mention here that GB was separated from AJK territory in 1970. Since then, AJK has had its own prime minister, president and legislation. Meanwhile, GB region has been controlled by the federal government directly from Islamabad under ‘Federal Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas’.
Furthermore, there are two opposite schools of thought inside Pakistan and GB. One thinks that merging GB with Pakistan as a province will weaken Islamabad’s Kashmir position. Others believe that it will give more political power to GB.
The opponents of the merger include former envoy to India Abdul Basit, who said: “My advice to Islamabad –think hard on GB. A step taken in reaction to what India did to IOK will engender avoidable controversies. Don’t stir up a hornet’s nest and weaken Pakistan’s principled position on dispute. At least honor the new political map you issued on August 4.” Moreover, the prime minister of AJK Raja Farooq Haider opposed the idea saying: “The step will serve the interests of enemies of Kashmir; hence it will be counterproductive.” The pro-independence leadership of IOK including Yasin Malik has also rejected the idea.
Meanwhile, the supporters think it will be a counter move to India’s August 5 step, which ended the autonomy of IOK after revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. The voices in support have increased in the recent past. A student leader, Shabbir Hussain, says that no one in GB is ready to accept India. “After granting the status of a fully-fledged province, GB’s provincial government will gain all of its powers, similar to the country’s other four provinces and people can send their representatives to Pakistan parliament.”
Even GB assembly passed a resolution in support of making the region a fifth province of Pakistan. “From day one we had merged with Pakistan and now the government should declare this region a fifth province of the country,” Muhammad Ali Khan, the provincial minister of GB said.
However, the general consensus among the analysts appears to be that Pakistan should go forward with the decision of making GB a fifth province, because it is the demand of people of GB, which has been reaffirmed by the result of the election.
Experts also say that India would not be able to do much about the move except raising the issue in the UN. Many further stress that GB is a vital part of the $87 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which underlines China’s interests in the region, which would be another bulwark against any Indian reaction.