By Aziz Ali Dad
The recent election season in Pakistan created a flurry of activity among those who subscribe to parties of various political persuasions. But Gilgit-Baltistan – because of its anomalous political setup within the polity of Pakistan – did not experience the sort of activities that are typical of election time. It is because of this different political status that any political development or change in the region does not affect the political dispensation at the national level.
However, change of power in the center does create ripples in the stagnant political landscape of Gilgit-Baltistan. It is visible in the post-election euphoria and in the statements of PML-N leaders who soon after the May 11 elections started to demand that Pir Karam Ali Shah be removed as governor of Gilgit-Baltistan. Aggrandised by the success of their party in the centre, some PML-N leaders are even enjoining the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) to mend its way or get ready for dissolution. Feeling the heat, Chief Minister Mehdi Shah warned Nawaz Sharif against “meddling” in the affairs of the Gilgit-Baltistan government.
So far Nawaz Sharif has shown sagacity in the formation of governments in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. From these precedents it can be surmised that he will act accordingly when it comes to forming government in Gilgit-Baltistan. On the other hand, it is feared that the anomalous political set-up may provide room to Nawaz Sharif for political manoeuvring without disturbing power relations in the centre. There are PML-N stalwarts in the region who want to topple the existing government so that more space can be created for the party within the political setup and more influence can be exerted on the local administration.
Since 1947, the region of Gilgit-Baltistan had been administratively controlled by the federal government via a strong bureaucracy in the region. In the bureaucratic-centred administrative arrangement, the elected representative had no role. Local administration had to rely on the federal government for important policy matters and planning. Because of the disconnect between the elected representatives and policymaking, the needs of the local populace were not reflected in key decisions and planning. Centralised decision-making and non-representative governance mechanisms resulted in the malfunctioning of administrative structures as well as increased relations between the people and the state.
Successive governments over the last two decades have gradually delegated more power to the elected representatives. The Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order 2009 was an important step towards empowering the legislative assembly. Though there are some areas where the elected members of the GBLA may feel powerless to bring about change, the new reforms package empowered – for the first time – elected representatives of the region by entrusting them with power for legislation and administration.
Since inclusion of elected representatives in decision-making was a new dimension in the administrative setup, there was a need to introduce new practices and mechanisms to make the new setup more effective and commensurable with the guidelines of the empowerment package. While implementing the package, no steps were taken to bring necessary changes in the administrative structure. As a corollary, the government is torn between the bureaucracy and the elected representatives, who grope in the darkness of the administrative labyrinth for their role.
Notwithstanding drastic changes in the dispensation of power in Gilgit-Baltistan, the procedures of the previous system remained immutable. During the last three and a half years CM Mehdi Shah has neither been seriously engaged with legislation on complicated issues, nor introduced required changes and asserted his power. This power vacuum allowed informal channels and processes to thrive within the corridors of power – influencing important decisions at the regional level.
Despite its shortcomings, the current government in Gilgit-Baltistan should be allowed to complete its tenure. This will help the recently-instituted democracy in the region take firm roots and flourish within the particular socio-cultural, political and economic ambiance of the region. Any undemocratic act or exogenous decisions will undo what little has been achieved till now. It is clear that the PML-N did not perform well in the GBLA elections in 2009 for several reasons.
There is no permanent power structure in Gilgit-Baltistan. Rather it mutates in tandem with the new configuration of power in the centre. The PML-N ought to break this pattern by sticking to its loyalists and shunning turncoats who are now making a beeline to join its bandwagon. Instead of clamouring for the removal of government, the local leadership will do better by reorganising the party according to existing realities.
To turn over a new leaf the local leadership has to engage with the people instead of relying on crutches and largesse from the power in the centre. Vagaries of power taking place in a space where they do not have representation will not make any difference. Only the people of the region can guarantee the future success of the PML-N in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org