Democracy Delivers in Pakistan's Himalayas
Weekly Pulse
November 20-26, 2009
On November 25, Pakistan People’s Party is expected to form a government in Gilgit-Baltistan, the country’s northernmost Himalayan region, where elections for the Legislative Assembly were held on November 12. The PPP won 11 of the 24 seats up for direct elections, and its opponents, including Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, were far behind, securing only a couple of seats or less to the most. The independents, numbering four, are expected to join the PPP, and the party may also win the by-polls for one constituency where elections were postponed.

It was surely an unprecedented election in the history of this region. Almost all political parties of the country fielded their candidates in the elections. The PPP fielded 23 candidates, Muttahida Qaumi Movement 19, PML-N, 15, PML-Q 14 and Awami National Party three. The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazlur Rehman), Balawaristan National Front, Jamaat-i-Islami and Tehrik-i-Insaaf fielded two candidates each. Almost all important political leaders, including Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, traveled to the North, addressed jam-packed rallies and mobilized public support for the respective party candidates. The people of this politically-neglected region have never experienced such display of national politics at their doorstep.

The Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly has 33 seats, 24 of which are elected and 9 are reserved—including 3 for technocrats and 6 for women. The region has six districts, where the allocation of seats was as follows: Gilgit 6, Skardu 6, Astore: 2, Diamir: 4, Ghazar: 3, and Ghanche: 3. Across these six districts, the regional election commission had set up 989 polling stations for 714,966 voters. All of them might not have been able to vote largely due to logistical difficulties, but most did. The people, the young and the old alike, equally participated in the election campaign. There was a lot of thrill on the streets, and certainly a lot of expectations from the election outcome.

Charges of Rigging

Just as most elections in Pakistan follow with charges of rigging by the losers, the latest one is no exception. Since this was the first ever general election in the area, it could not be expected to be rigging-free. However, to portray the entire electoral process as a fraud, especially when the margin of victory by the PPP over its main rivals such as PML-N is so wide, is simply ridiculous.

Surely election-day violence, whosever may have initiated it, is condemnable. While addressing an election rally in the region, Prime Minister Gilani did announce a special package of Rs 2 billion and Rs 1 billion for the construction of 200 new schools and 100 new dispensaries, respectively. As to how much the announcement of such incentive by the PPP leader may have influenced the election outcome is debatable.

However, it is an undeniable fact that the PPP, since the days of its founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto has done a lot for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan region, formerly known as Northern Areas. It was he who liberated them in Hunza-Nagar from the despotic rule of the two former princely state regimes. They gained their right to franchise also under the PPP rule of Benazir Bhutto.

Since the 1970s, three successive PPP governments, including the present one, have attempted to extend democratic rights to the traditionally tolerant and culturally distinct people this beautiful area of the country, which is a huge attraction for international mountaineers each summer for having some of the highest peaks in the world.

Reforms Package

Keeping up with past tradition, the Federal Cabinet of the PPP-led government on August 29 approved the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009, which eventually aims to give Gilgit Baltistan full internal autonomy.The November12 elections were the first step in this regard.

The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 replaced Northern Areas’ Legal Framework Order 1994, which was introduced by the PPP government of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The 1994 Order had succeeded the Northern Areas Council Legal Framework Order 1974-75, introduced by the PPP government led by her late father, former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Under the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009, the Legislative Assembly will elect a Chief Minister, who will be assisted by six ministers and two advisors. Gilgit-Baltistan will also have a Governor to be appointed by the President. The Assembly will formulate its own Rules of Procedure, and make laws for 61 subjects, as against the federally-controlled Gilgit-Baltistan Council’s jurisdiction over 55 subjects.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan may not have obtained full democratic rights, just as people in other parts of Pakistan do, but the recent elections conducted on the basis of an important political reforms package together constitute the beginning of a credible process towards full democracy in the region. They will assure the people of the area that the country they acceded to voluntarily 62 years ago owns them and their future.

Reversing Extremism

A potentially significant by-product of introducing limited democracy to this previously neglected region may be the eventual reversal of a wave of extremism there, which was limited to Shia-Sunni sectarianism initially and has overtime expanded to extremism and terrorism that is a major cause for China in Xinjiang, India in Kashmir and for Pakistan itself. Democracy is the best antidote to extremism.

Therefore, whether it is the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan or its northern Himalayan peaks, a long-term solution to extremism and terrorism emanating from these regions is to politically empower the people living there. In a relatively democratic system, people will gradually learn to realize their political aspirations through peaceful ways, instead of using force in the name of religion, as has been the case in recent decades both in FATA and Northern Areas.

In the new relatively democratic environment, where the elected local Assembly may overtime gain greater say than the unelected federal Council in Gilgit-Baltistan, the consistent rise of sectarianism and extremism in the region in the last three decades may be constrained and eventually reversed. Sectarianism has been a bane for the traditionally pacifist people of the region since the military regime of General Ziaul Haq (1977-1988).

The region’s majority population is Shiite, with most of them subscribing to tolerant Ismaili ethos. In the 1980s, the military regime sponsored Sunni extremist elements there, including a 1988 Lashkar attack. In the following years, Gilgit and other areas were engulfed with sectarianism. In the 1990s, the region was used strategically as part of Pakistani security establishment’s policy to support the militant uprising in Indian-administered Kashmir, a policy that surfaced amply in the 1999 Kargil war with Northern Areas acting as a springboard.

The region acing as sanctuary for extremists is equally a worrisome factor for the Chinese authorities trying to combat an al-Qaeda inspired insurgency by extremist Muslim-Uiygur people in its southern province of Xinjiang. Beijing has numerous times expressed its grave concern with Islamabad over the presence of extremist outfits in the bordering region and their support to ethno-religious insurgents in Xinjiang.

Indian Criticism

Given that, any step towards politically empowering the people of Northern Areas should be welcomed by China, and there is no reason why the Indians should not be happy about Pakistani efforts to democratise Gilgit-Baltistan.

It is, therefore, quite unfortunate that New Delhi has criticised the November 12 elections in the region in the same manner as it had condemned the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 introduced by the Pakistani government in August. Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash termed the elections in Gilgit-Baltistan as "another cosmetic exercise intended to camouflage the fact of Pakistan’s illegal occupation of areas of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.” India had condemned the August reform package as a move intended to integrate an “occupied” area which “belongs to India.”

Instead of criticising Pakistan, India should concentrate on solving Kashmir. It is essentially because of the Kashmir problem that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have remained disenfranchised for the pat 62 years. Their democratic aspirations can no longer remain hostage to the Kashmir dispute, which may take some more years or even decades to resolve. Just because it is not being resolved does not mean that that the political status of the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which historically, geographically and ethnically is distinct from the disputed Kashmir area, should remain ambiguous and its people continue to suffer due to this ambiguity.

Leaving aside Indian criticism, Pakistani leadership should continue the important task of incrementally extending the fruits of democracy to the region, with the next step of letting the people of Gilgit-Baltistan choose their representatives for the National Assembly and the Senate, as the people of FATA do.

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