KARACHI, Pakistan

Some 700,000 voters in Pakistan’s northern Gilgit-Baltistan region will cast their ballots on Sunday to elect a new government for the next five years.

Gilgit-Baltistan is a strategic area for Pakistan, touching neighboring China and serving as a key route for the multibillion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The main contenders are the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in power in Pakistan since 2018; the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP); and the center-right Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), which won the 2015 elections in the region by a majority.

According to election authorities, polling will be held for 23 out of a total 24 seats up for grabs in the region’s Legislative Assembly.

Voting for one seat has been postponed after the death of a candidate.

Some 330 candidates are contesting the polls, which are the third since the scenic region was granted the right to elect its own assembly in 2009.

The first two elections were won by the PPP and the PML-N, respectively.

Recent surveys project a close contest between the PTI and the PPP, with the PML-N and some independent candidates lagging behind.

The PTI, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, has an edge over its rivals, since Gilgit-Baltistan voters have previously gone with the party that has been in power in the capital Islamabad.

Opposition parties, mainly the PPP and the PML-N, have accused the government of pre-poll rigging, a charge denied by the ruling party.

Formerly known as the Northern Areas, Gilgit-Baltistan is located at the confluence of the world’s greatest mountain ranges — the Karakoram, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and the Pamir.

Before the end of British colonial rule and creation of Pakistan and India in 1947, the region was part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Rich in history, culture, and natural beauty, the area, which also remained a center of rivalries between Russian, British, and Chinese empires, has been a cynosure for trekkers and adventure tourists for centuries.

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