Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who finds himself increasingly isolated on the national scene in the wake of Panama Gate and American action against the Taliban, will face an acid test in Gilgit –Baltistan which is set to vote in a bye-election from Hunza.
It is a self-inflicted wound for Sharif. He has turned a routine bye-election involving around 36000 voters into a referendum on his Pakistan Muslim League Party (PML-N) by fielding a bank loan defaulter much against the wishes of local satraps, who are now arraigned against his leadership.
There 24 candidates in the fray for the Hunza seat. They include Baba Jan, a local hero who has been fighting for self-rule for Gilgit. He has been languishing in jail for several months. The seat fell vacant following the resignation of Ghazanfar Ali Khan on his elevation as the Governor of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The bye-election was originally scheduled to take place on May 28, 2016 but, a division bench of the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit-Baltistan decided to delay the ballot for three weeks in order to complete the hearing of two pending criminal cases against Baba Jan.
Because of his close friendship with Mir Ghazanfar Ali Khan, Nawaz gave the ticket to his son Prince Salim Ali, who is a known bank loan defaulter. The decision sparked off a revolt in the local PML unit, which had recommended a retired colonel, Ubaidullah Baig for the seat.
Baig is contesting as an Independent with the tacit support of PML-N senior and G-B chief minister Hafeezur Rehman. PML-N cadres are also upset with Ali’s candidature because his mother Rani Atika is a lawmaker in Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly.
She was elected on a reserved seat for woman. “We do not want a new dynasty to raise in Gilgit”, a PML N leader was quoted as saying in local media. “We do not want a father-mother-son to lord over us”.
Though Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have fielded their heavy weights, the contest is mainly triangular between Prince Salim Ali, Ubaidullah Baig and Baba Jan. According to a survey, both Col. Ubaidullah and Baba Jan are expected to give a tough fight to Salim Khan. To the dismay of Pakistan authorities, Baba Jan has become the most popular candidate on social media in Gilgit-Baltistan. He is not new to elections.
He came second in the 2015 election to the GB Legislative Assembly on the ticket of Left leaning Awami Workers Party (AWP) and secured 4, 500 votes relegating the PPP and PTI candidates to the third and fourth positions. Like in the 2015 election this time also, Baba Jan’s campaign is being financed and managed by students, youth and women.
The 33—year-old is at present serving life sentence awarded by an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) for his role in an agitation for compensation to the victims of a massive landslide that had created an artificial lake rendering hundreds of families homeless in the Hunza district in 2010.
Baba Jan is a strong voice against forcible occupation of 5800 square kilometers of the Gilgit territory by China and the annexation of Kohistan and Chitral into Pakistan. “Kohistan has been integrated into Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa even though historically it is a part of Gilgit-Baltistan”, political analyst Umar Farooq points out.
Progressive parties, student and youth organisations as well as human rights organisations have been mounting pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the release of Baba Jan, describing him as “symbol of struggle” in Gilgit Baltistan.
Even the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is supporting the campaign. Like in all elections across Pakistan, this by-poll for Hunza seat in Gilgit-Baltistan also has raised concerns over free, fair and transparent poll.
The ruling regime knows how to win elections in PoK or Gilgit-Baltistan, says Dr. Shabir Choudhry, a rights activist. “Islamabad and Rawalpindi have a long history of rigging elections in Pakistan and in their colonies of so called Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan,” he said in an interview.
The Awami Workers Party has already asked the Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Election Commissioner to prevent pre-poll rigging, voicing concern that G-B Governor Ghazanfar Ali Khan and his lawmaker-wife are campaign for their son Salim.
Gilgit-Baltistan which was earlier known as the Northern Areas was part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir until Pakistan occupied the region in 1947.
The area remains one of the most neglected parts of Pakistan with the people denied their fundamental rights. They are not allowed to take part in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections either. The Constitutions of 1956, 1962 and 1973 of Pakistan do not recognize Gilgit Baltistan as a part of Pakistan.
Under the Provisional Constitutional Act. 1974, the PoK High Court has the right to hear all petitions concerning PoK and the Northern Areas but the Supreme Court ruled in September 1994 that the Northern Areas are part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and not of PoK.
The Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) was created through a Presidential order in 2009. It has a total 33 members; 24 of them elected directly and six women and three technocrats elected indirectly through party list proportional representation system.
The first election to the GBLA was held in November 2009 in which PPP bagged 14 seats. However, PML (N) dislodged PPP in the second election held in June 2015 by winning 16 seats. Thus it has been tradition that whosoever holds power in Islamabad wins the election in PoK and Gilgit Baltistan.