The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are heading to polling stations today (Sunday) to vote in what could be the most hotly contested election the region has ever seen.
Pictures and videos showed citizens lined up outside polling stations, wearing face masks and observing social distancing to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Many also braved heavy snowfall in the upper areas of GB to cast their vote.
There were also power outages reported at some polling stations, slowing down the voting process as staff used torches to register voter data.
According to directives issued by the GB government, voters will be required to maintain a distance of six feet from each other. Meanwhile, 8,000 bags containing face covers, masks, gloves and sanitisers have been dispatched for staff at polling stations.
According to Radio Pakistan, the voting process will continue without any interval from 8am to 5pm. Further, more than 15,000 security personnel from GB, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan have been have been deployed at polling stations.
As many as 330 candidates, including four women, are vying for the 24 general seats in the third legislative assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan. However, polling in one constituency has been postponed, according to Radio Pak.
Over half of the polling stations have already been categorised sensitive. Out of 1,141 polling stations, 577 have been declared sensitive and 297 highly sensitive.
The polls assumed much significance this time as the two main opposition parties held a vigorous campaign. These elections could serve as a test case for the ruling PTI as well as the two opposition party leaders — Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Maryam Nawaz.
With political temperature hitting boiling point, leaders of the three major parties organised public gatherings in various parts of the region, firing salvos against each other while ignoring around 100 notices issued by the GB Election Commission over violation of code of conduct.
Bilawal, who stayed in the region for weeks, has been leading the PPP's campaign.
Prime Minister Imran Khan also made an appearance in Gilgit to attend a ceremony held on the occasion of the region's Independence Day where he announced that the area would soon be given a provisional status of province.
Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan Ali Amin Gandapur, Communications Minister Murad Saeed as well as PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz also actively participated in the campaign.
According to political analysts, a tough battle is expected between PTI and PPP.
For the upcoming polls, which were earlier scheduled to be held in August but were postponed due to the pandemic, PPP has fielded 23 candidates, while 21 aspirants represent the PML-N.
The PTI has entered a seat adjustment arrangement with Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen on two constituencies.
The party has also been strengthened with the recent joining of local leaders. Seasoned politician Fida Mohammad Nashad is one of them and has been awarded the party ticket.
Mr Nashad had served as the legislative assembly’s speaker after the 2015 elections. Other former PML-N ministers and assembly members who have joined PTI include Dr Mohammad Iqbal, Haider Khan and Ibrahim Sanai.
A recent Gallup Pakistan survey showed that PTI was in a strong position followed by the PPP.
Interesting contests in some constituencies
In GBLA-2 (Gilgit), former chief minister Hafizur Rehman of the PML-N and PPP’s Jamil Ahmed will face each other for the third time.
In 2015, Hafeezur Rahman had defeated Jamil Ahmed, while in 2009 both lost to Deedar Ali, an independent candidate.
In GBLA-10, Wazir Hassan of the PTI and Mohammad Sikandar Ali of the Islami Tehreek Pakistan (ITP), who have also been contesting against each other since 2009, are in the run again.
In 2009, Wazir Hassan, who was a PPP candidate back then, defeated independent Raja H. Khan Maqnoon and Mohammad Sikandar of the PML-Q. In 2015, Mohammad Sikandar contested the polls on Islami Tehreek Pakistan’s ticket and won. Nasir Abdullah of MWM was runner-up while Wazir Hassan (PPP) and Najaf Ali of PTI were also in the race.
This time, Wazir Hassan is a PTI candidate and will be facing Wazir Mohammad Khan and Mohammad Sikandar.
Chief of Baltistan National Front (BNF) Nawaz Khan Naji, an ardent supporter for the region’s autonomy, remained successful both in 2009 and 2015 polls. He is vying for a seat from the GBLA-19 constituency once again.
In GBLA-7 (Skardu) Mohammad Abbas of the ITP will be competing against his uncle, Raja Zakria Khan, who has been fielded by PTI. Others in the contest are former GB chief minister Syed Mehdi Shah who had won the seat back in 2009 but lost it in 2015.
Elections have been delayed in GBLA-3 following the death of PTI Gilgit-Baltistan President retired Justice Jaffer Shah from coronavirus.
PTI has now given the ticket to Jaffer Shah’s son after facing severe criticism over its earlier decision to grant ticket to former minister Dr Iqbal, who left PML-N and joined PTI.
Despite joining PTI formally, Dr Iqbal would be contesting the election as an independent candidate.
In a latest development, Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqh-i-Jafria extended its support to PPP in the Gilgit-Baltistan elections.