ELECTIONS aren’t due till mid-summer in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), but the heat is already on.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made a couple of visits to the valley with promises of opening up the floodgates of development and funds, just as he did in every other constituency where his party contested a by-election; his representative Pervez Rashid is running errands to the region every other day. Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan used his recent London trip to muster up support for these elections, while Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, seems to have smelt the rat of rigging even before the election schedule has been announced.

“There also are disturbing reports that non-Kashmiri Pakistanis living elsewhere in the country have been registered as voters in various constituencies in connivance with some federal government agencies,” Mr Bhutto-Zardari alleged in a statement reported by this newspaper last week.

This is not the first time that the government at the centre has been accused of manipulating elections in AJK; almost every federal government has influenced polls here.

“The AJK government is always a dummy,” says Dr Hasan Askari, a senior political analyst. “The federal secretary of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs is always more powerful than the prime minister of AJK. Whichever party rules in Islamabad, it brings its own government in Muzaffarabad using whatever tactics it can to win the elections.”

“As soon as a new party takes over the federal government in Islamabad, it topples the ruling party in Muzaffarabad and brings in its own outfit,” he continues. “However, this time, the PPP government survived because Nawaz Sharif refused to bring in a change despite the fact that his party had made all the preparations.” If one goes by the political culture in Pakistan, winning local or provincial elections has always been difficult for opposition parties since sitting governments use all tactics — whether right or wrong — to maintain their supremacy. Voters are influenced by the ruling party mainly through development funds.

“In the recent local government elections, the parties which were ruling in different provinces swept the elections there,” explains Rasul Baksh Rais, senior professor of political science and a political commentator. “This is what happens in AJK, too, because people vote to get rewards from the ruling parties.”

Askari agrees, quoting the example of the Gilgit-Baltistan elections where the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz registered victory after taking over in Islamabad. Earlier, the PPP had clinched this semi-autonomous province after establishing its government in the centre in 2008.

But then, there is a question of autonomy for AJK. If Islamabad officially declares it an autonomous state, why do the parties that rule there interfere in the state’s elections?

“Despite the fact that Pakistan has awarded its part of Kashmir an autonomous status and maintains a stance for a plebiscite for India-held Kashmir, it does have administrative control over the valley and parties in Islamabad deem it necessary to establish their governments there for better control,” Askari answers. “AJK can’t be fully autonomous because it depends heavily upon Islamabad for its economy, funds, security and the bureaucracy, and the political parties take advantage of this. So, either the federal government sits with them and decides that, okay, it’s administered by Islamabad but can enjoy limited authority, or we will continue seeing this political hegemony of Islamabad’s ruling parties.”

Further, Askari says, making AJK a full province of Pakistan will flatten its case in the United Nations about a plebiscite in the region. Over the years, the country’s lukewarm foreign policy has already seen its case weaken internationally; at the moment, Pakistan is in no position to propose a revolutionary step of changing the status of Kashmir at the UN level.

“You don’t have to go to the UN,” argues Rais. “You can simply bring in another amendment to the Constitution and declare that AJK and GB will become and remain provinces of Pakistan until the UN arranges a plebiscite on the issue.” Arif Bahar, a senior journalist in Muzaffarabad who has penned two books on the history of the region, says that the people of the valley don’t have the political acumen to resist interference from the centre. “People here don’t have a political mind, there is no political culture,” he explains. “The four main clans — Suddhan, Gujjar, Jat and Rajput — decide the fate of the political parties and they always lean towards the party ruling in Islamabad to get ministries, offices, funds and development schemes.”

“In the history of AJK, I have never seen a single prime minister or president who was elected against the will of Islamabad,” Bahar muses.

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2016