As night falls on a remote road in northern Pakistan, Ijaz ul Haq, 22, is keeping his grocery store open. He is hoping to cash in on a frenzied electoral campaign underway in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Political parties are trying to sway voters in G-B, a mountainous part of the larger Kashmir region. Pakistan’s top politicians have turned up here to stump. They are vowing to build multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects, and end decades of disenfranchisement.
G-B, which borders Afghanistan and China, is the gateway of the $65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure plan. But the region has so far reaped few rewards.
“Look at this road we have, it takes 4.5 hours to get to a decent hospital from here. If they fixed the road it would take 1.5 hours,” said Haq. He lives in Thawoos, a tiny hamlet in the district of Ghizer.
Locals fought pro-India forces and opted to join Pakistan in 1948. But since then G-B has not been granted full inclusion by the Pakistani constitution.
The local assembly, for which the November 15 elections are being held, has few powers. National Assembly and Senate have no representation from G-B. The region receives only a fraction of the national budget.
This month Prime Minister Imran Khan said he would provide provincial status to G-B. However, no timeline has been given, said Reuters.
The announcement came a year after India changed the status of the portion of occupied Kashmir.
PM’s plan is not the first time locals have heard promises of being granted constitutional rights. In 2016, then prime minister Nawaz Sharif proposed to make G-B a province as well. He then shelved plans after pro-Pakistan leaders in IOK denounced the decision.
“We’ve long said we want to be part of Pakistan, but they push us away,” said Yawar Abbas. He is a local leader with the G-B Awareness Forum.
Graves of fallen soldiers marked by Pakistani flags dot the Ghizer district, which has the country’s highest per-capita rate of military recruitment.
“There is rampant poverty here, and for many of us there is no other way to earn a living than joining the military,” said Haq, whose brother serves in the navy.
In the winter, when the glacial melt that powers the small hydroelectric dams dotting the region slows, locals often have no power for 20 hours a day.
The CPEC project was supposed to bring development to the region, but that has not happened, a consequence, residents believe, of the lack of local representation at national levels.
New roads, two hydroelectric power plants, a fiber-optic internet line, and a special economic zone to boost industrial activities have all been proposed as part of the CPEC project, but none have been materialized so far.
The only substantial project from the much-touted China-Pakistan partnership has been the construction of the Karakoram Highway, completed decades ago.
Like most other candidates, Jamil Ahmed, has promised voters he would seek to draw more investment from China.
“CPEC is going through here, we are the gateway, we are the door to China. So if someone opens the door for you, you should put something at the doorstep as well,” said Ahmed, a candidate with the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Meanwhile, a recent survey has claimed that the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is likely to win the G-B elections. This is certainly bad news for Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). But, which party will actually win? Time will tell.
What do you think of this story? Let us know in the comments section below.