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Rigged. Stolen. Cheated. Conspired. Pre and post-election such adjectives are common, by losers. From the remote mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan to the rocky mountains of Colorado, regardless of the result, the voice of the vote has dominated the vice of the virus. Who would have thought that in the worst killer pandemic in 100 years the electoral fervor will outdo the fear of death. Who would have thought that in the freezing snow and gusts of the wind the zest of the Gilgit-Baltistanis will raise the heat and temperatures to lift suppressed spirits. But that is the beauty of the election system. It involves each being. It involves each mind. It involves each person, young and old, male and female. The ability of people to voice their choice is what makes humans matter. That is why elections during the time of Covid-19 are more historic and euphoric.

Gilgit-Baltistan is an autonomous region in northern Pakistan with a separate government and electoral systems. In 1970, it became a single administrative unit called the Northern Areas under administrative control of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas, formed from the amalgamation of the Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan District of the Ladakh Wazarat, and the states of Hunza and Nagar. The region is divided into two administrative divisions: Gilgit and Baltistan/Skardu, with an estimated population of 1.3 million with 24 seats in the electoral constituencies.

The Gilgit-Baltistan elections 2020 had become more important than ever. Normally, such elections were treated routinely with the main two parties - PPP and PML-N - knowing fully well that the government ruling in the center will win the majority. However this time all three parties took these elections seriously. The reasons are the following:

  1. Stake of Each Political Party- This is the first time three main parties were contesting the elections. Each party had a high political stake in the results. For PTI these elections were crucial. PPP and PML-N had launched an attack on PTI being a complete failure and losing its popularity. PTI needed to prove otherwise. They wanted to establish their popularity and the opposition’s negative approach. PPP had not only been in power previously but also had a vote bank traditionally in Gilgit-Baltistan due to the legislative support given to the province by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. They felt that a good showing will help rebuild the perception of PPP being not just a Sindh-based party but a national party. PML-N being the latest rulers in the province wanted to prove that their performance in the province had given them support that strengthens their narrative of being better performers.

  2. Leadership Test- The G-B 2020 elections were also significant in the context of formal launching of first tier family leaders by PPP and PML-N and second tier leadership by PTI. Bilawal Bhutto put in the maximum time and effort during the elections. Maryam also spent time in the last 10 days of campaigning in G-B. Ali Amin Gandapur and Murad Saeed led the response from PTI side. There was a lot of enthusiasm in all rallies. The fact is that leadership is not just about roaring speeches. The poor performance of PML-N in the last five years and Maryam’s caustic remarks about disgruntled party leaders in G-B contributed to the poor performance of the party in the elections. Being the ruling party at the Center PTI promised the provisional status to the voters. PPP had little to offer except the rather overused Bhutto brand and thus could not really convert voters.

  3. Narrative Acceptance- This election was also about the PDM’s narrative desirability. While PPP discreetly stuck to attacking PTI’s performance, PML-N stuck to its attack on the institutions. The lack of adaptability and maturity in the speeches of the newly launched leadership failed to create the potential upsets that some pundits were predicting.

G-B elections are significant in many ways. They were in the midst of a second lethal wave of corona. They were held in the harsh winters. However, they were participated with glee and enthusiasm. All parties managed to draw crowds and that itself shows that people of G-B are really hungry of political focus. The other encouraging feature was the participation of women in the political process. All parties except PML-N nominated women candidates who got reasonable votes. The sight of long queues of women voters signaled the readiness of G-B to make their region matter.

The promise of giving G-B a provisional province status must be fulfilled by the government. Jobs and basic amenities are the main issues of the region. The government has to implement its G-B tourism plan to create job opportunities for them. This year’s performance in GB will be the test for the Azad Jammu Kashmir elections next year. Similarly, opposition has to really rethink their narrative salience. It is very evident that drumming on anti-state narrative is not getting them anywhere. They should focus on specific public issues. The problem with G-B was that it was PML-N’s government over there before elections so talking on lack of public services was actually owning up to their own shortcomings. On a national level the opposition must focus on core public issues to really act as a vigilant and effective custodian of public interests.

Every crisis is an opportunity. Many people say that President Trump would have won if Covid-19 had not come. Covid-19 has made voters make more informed choices. This is an indication that there is a realization in voters that they need to choose their leaders with care. The fact that from Georgia to G-B voters who had never come out before turned up in droves is a signal that the voice of the voter will eventually be louder than the voice of those seeking votes.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected] The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the newspaper)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020