[Opinion]Discontent in Gilgit – Baltistan

by Aziz Ali Dad

The announcement of the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Ordinance in September 2009 gave some hope to the optimists that it would pave the way for democratic governance and political rejuvenation of the moribund governance structure and stagnant political culture of Gilgit-Baltistan. Sceptics, however, dubbed it as an eyewash to hide the real mechanics of power, which are under the direct control of the federal government. It was hoped that the fervour of debate for and against the empowerment package would gradually subside and give way to an objective view after the elections. Now that a new set-up is in place, there are some factors that lend credence to the sceptics’ argument. These can prove detrimental to the nascent democratic process and damaging to the repute of the ruling party in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Soon after the results of the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) elections in November were announced, independent and other party members made a beeline to become part of the government. Until now, the PPP enjoys the support of 23 members out of 33 seats in the assembly. I think the ruling party should dissuade independent members and other parties from becoming part of power sharing because the PPP has a clear majority in the assembly. Therefore, it does not need the favour of members outside the party. GBLA has already unanimously elected a chief minister. But the ordinance does not envisage the slot of an opposition leader.

For a proper functioning of democracy, the existence of a vigilant and vibrant opposition is indispensable. Cooption of independent winners and other party members within the current dispensation will make the opposition weak or reduce it to the status of a non-entity. Such an act will stifle the nascent democratic culture in the region by drowning dissenting voices in the artificial consensus created through the bribe of a seat in government. Prima facie, the current dispensation is gearing up to make the ruling party strong at the cost of obliteration of the opposition from GBLA. Owing to this, Marvi Memon has criticised the empowerment package for an absence of the seat of opposition leader. She is right in questioning the government that who will hold the ruling party accountable when there is no opposition in the house.

The incentive of advisory seats in GBLA will breed corruption and render the governance system ineffective. The seat of advisor is equivalent to that of a minister in the provinces of Pakistan. Therefore, it holds a special attraction for the elected members. In order to suppress dissenting voices within the party and the coalition, the position of advisor will become a kind of hush money, which is against the principles of good governance. Since the region of Gilgit-Baltistan is heterogeneous in terms of race, sect, language and culture, it will be difficult for the ruling party to maintain a fragile coalition in case of a coalition government. The ruling party will squander most of its time on maintaining the coalition intact rather than addressing the real issues of the people.

The most important post in the new political set-up is that of governor. It is important because it enjoys more powers than that of the chief minister. Because of this, some sceptics objected to the empowerment package announced by the government. But there is still room to remove scepticism by appointing a local person as governor. Various groups and persons have been lobbying for the governorship since the elections. But President Asif Ali Zardari dashed all their hopes by declaring that a woman would be the governor of Gilgit-Baltistan. True that the governor is a representative of the president and he has the prerogative to appoint him/her, but there are some rules and procedures to follow. It should not be based on personal whims generated by the frenzy of a political diatribe in an emotionally charged moment of the death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto.

During the last three decades, Gilgit-Baltistan has been exposed to exogenous influences, which has made the local communities vulnerable to global market forces that are depriving them of indigenous resources. The awarding of leases and licenses for mining of minerals and gems to outside firms without consulting the local community is a case in point. In addition, some mega projects, such as Diamer-Bhasha Dam and Bonji Hydel Project, are in the pipeline. They are going to bring drastic changes in settlement pattern, culture and economy of the region. Furthermore, the region has no say in important national bodies like the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) and the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award. Therefore, it is imperative for the current government of Gilgit-Baltistan to protect the legitimate rights of the region on the one hand, and strive to become a party to decision-making bodies at the national level on the other.

There is simmering resentment among the local populace against the treatment meted out to the region in distribution of royalty in mega projects like Diamer-Bhasha Dam. To give credence to its claim of empowerment, the local government of the PPP needs to take a stance on the important issues that influence the fate of the whole region of Gilgit-Baltistan. If the elected members of GBLA fail to protect the economic interests and basic rights of the people, the assembly is doomed, because it will expose the hollowness of the so-called empowerment.

The absence of participation of Gilgit-Baltistan in decision-making bodies at the national level will make the whole exercise of administrative and political changes in the empowerment package meaningless. Real participation comes with a role in decision-making. Otherwise, holding elections, appointing office bearers, and following the procedures of a parliamentary system become just rituals to be performed time and again to keep a semblance of legitimacy. But the semblance of representative institutions cannot be kept for a long period when discontent brews in society. This holds true for Gilgit-Baltistan as well.

The writer is associated with a rights based organisation in Islamabad. He can be reached at azizalidad@hotmail.com

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