Gilgit-Baltistan Faces First Assembly Polls

11 November 2009

Srinagar: Elections for the 24-member assembly in the strategic border region of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-administered Kashmir began early Thursday amid tight security and controversy following reports that hundreds of separatist leaders had been arrested and sent to Islamabad. The election results for 23 constituencies would be announced Nov 14. Voting for one constituency was postponed following the death of a candidate. Around 250 candidates of various national as well as regional parties are in the fray. Of the total 770,000 electorate, nearly 332,400, are women. According to officials, over 900 polling stations have been set up. In view of the disturbed law and order situation, stringent security arrangements have been put in place. The elections, however, are not so popular as many separatists have rejected the polls as “illegal” and called for a boycott. Hundreds of them have been arrested and sent off to Islamabad, said Abdul Hamid Khan, a prominent leader of the region. Khan is the chairperson of the Balawaristan National Front (BNF), a constituent of Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance (GBDA). GBDA is a combine of the separatist political parties in the Northern Areas - officially renamed Gilgit-Baltistan after the Pakistan cabinet approved the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009, in August. The resource-rich territory, part of the erstwhile undivided Jammu and Kashmir, has seen a separatist movement gaining momentum over the past few years. Alarmingly low literacy levels, the absence of industry, deplorable road and communication links, poor energy sources and and the lack of job opportunities have fuelled the rebellion in the region, which was part of Jammu and Kashmir before Pakistan militarily occupied some parts in 1948. Stringent laws make the region inaccessible to foreigners and there are few media reports from the region.