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Has Gilgit-Baltistan’s Election Made Pakistan’s Opposition Parties Relevant Again?

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Has Gilgit-Baltistan’s Election Made Pakistan’s Opposition Parties Relevant Again?

The autonomous region is a powerful card in the hands of Pakistan’s opposition as it pushes against the Imran Khan government and the military establishment.

Has Gilgit-Baltistan’s Election Made Pakistan’s Opposition Parties Relevant Again?
Credit: Flickr/Siobhán Silke

Pakistan has rejected the Indian government’s recent amendments to land ownership laws in Jammu and Kashmir that now allow non-residents to purchase land in the valley.

Pakistan’s foreign office in a statement said that the new law is a “clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions, bilateral agreements between Pakistan and India, and international law.”

New Delhi’s latest move to further co-opt Jammu and Kashmir comes at an important juncture considering Pakistan’s politics. The development is likely to complicate Pakistan’s Kashmir policy and efforts to decide the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). However, it may end up reviving Pakistani opposition parties’ relevancy in the country’s political landscape.

Pakistan has announced its decision to hold the GB Assembly elections on November 15. The election comes in the backdrop of a heated debate in Pakistan to make Gilgit-Baltistan the country’s fifth province.

However, the poll has become controversial as the country’s opposition parties push to thwart any efforts to rig it. Recently, Pakistan’s army chief met the leaders of all mainstream opposition parties to discuss likely constitutional changes to make Gilgit-Baltistan Pakistan’s fifth province. The meeting has drawn controversy as the military chief is not technically permitted to discuss the country’s constitutional matters with political parties.

Further, the opposition’s onslaught over the last two weeks against the federal government and the military leadership has virtually closed any chances of closed-door consultations on the issue. The head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has banned his party members from holding any public or private meetings with the military’s leadership. This essentially means that Gilgit-Baltistan’s chances of becoming the fifth province of Pakistan could become a victim of Pakistan’s internal political battles.

Complicating the issue is the attempt by all political parties to claim credit for giving Gilgit-Baltistan full constitutional status. This has become more important after the breakdown of dialogue among the key state institutions, particularly the military and opposition parties. Bilawal Bhutto, the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), recently said “Now this election is not for coming into power but this a struggle for a better future for the people of GB.” He added, “We will give similar rights to the people of GB which the people of the rest of the country are enjoying.” Pakistan’s minister of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan affairs, Ali Amin Gandapur, has announced that Imran Khan’s government has decided to “elevate Gilgit Baltistan to the status of a full-fledged province with all constitutional rights, including its representation in the Senate and the National Assembly.”

At the moment, opposition parties hold the upper hand when it comes to the future of Gilgit-Baltistan. They understand that without their support in the parliament, Gilgit Baltistan cannot become Pakistan’s fifth province. This is reflective of their position to not discuss any constitutional changes before the election concludes in Gilgit-Baltistan.

In this regard, India’s decision to allow non-residents to buy property in Jammu and Kashmir may have further boosted Pakistani opposition parties’ leverage against the ruling party and its support base in state institutions.

Perhaps the opposition is not interested in making a “closed-door” deal with the national security establishment on the issue of Gilgit Baltistan as it has become a core part of Pakistan’s security policy. Arguably, after being out of the picture for  almost two years, the opposition has found an opening where they can target the ruling alliance and gain their constitutional relevancy back.

Furthermore, India’s constitutional gains in Jammu and Kashmir — which Pakistan doesn’t accept officially — may have changed the national security establishment’s plans concerning Gilgit-Baltistan’s constitutional fate and the opposition’s role in those plans. Opposition parties may end up winning the election in Gilgit-Baltistan as any other scenario might further undermine the government’s attempt to make Gilgit-Baltistan the country’s fifth province.

Until the issue of Gilgit-Baltistan is settled in Pakistan, opposition parties will carry important leverage against the national security establishment.