MUZAFFARABAD: A total of 2.674 million Kashmiris will exercise their right to franchise on Thursday to elect members for the AJK Legislative Assembly, which will be the ninth since the parliamentary form of government was introduced in Azad Jammu and Kashmir in 1975.
While the region is spread over 14,245 square kilometres, the polling process is not restricted to this area. Instead, it stretches to entire Pakistan because members for 12 out of the 41 directly elected seats are elected by 438,884 voters living in various parts of the country.
Twenty-six political parties and 423 candidates are in the fray but the actual contest is between the nominees of the AJK chapters of three mainstream Pakistani political parties — Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League-N and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.
The PPP in AJK was launched by Z.A. Bhutto in 1973 and until December 2010 it faced Muslim Conference (MC) as its arch-opponent. But the situation changed in 2010 when Nawaz Sharif launched the PML-N in the region.
The 2011 polls were a neck-and-neck fight between the PPP and the PML-N though the MC was also in the field. As AJK rarely goes against the centre, the PPP secured smooth victory and formed its government. The PML-N also did well by winning 10 seats. The MC, which had ruled for a long time, was reduced to four seats.
However, since Imran Khan’s PTI made a foray into AJK’s political competition, the interest and activity has moved beyond AJK’s boundaries.
The contesting parties have formed alliances or, in some cases, made seat adjustments. For instance, the PML-N has fielded candidates in 38 constituencies and offered two seats in Rawalakot district to the Jammu Kashmir Peoples Party (JKPP), which has sizeable support in the Sudhan-dominant belts of Rawalakot and Sudhnoti districts. One constituency of Kashmiri refugees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been given by the PML-N to the Jamaat-i-Islami.
The PTI has entered into an alliance as well as seat adjustment with the MC — something needed by both — because while the MC leadership was looking for a way out to check defections from its ranks to other parties, such as the PML-N, the PTI also needed an ally as it lacked strong candidates in some constituencies in the southern districts.
Both parties have fielded joint candidates in 36 constituencies — 28 from the PTI and 8 from the MC. The remaining constituencies have been left open, as nominees of both parties were unwilling to pull out in each other’s favour.
Fissures in the disciplined JI have surprised many. While JI chief Abdul Rashid Turabi has announced support for the PML-N, presumably in return for a reserved seat for himself, his predecessor Sardar Ejaz Afzal Khan is being supported by the MC in Rawalakot after a local-level seat adjustment deal.
Contesting the elections independently, PPP had fielded its candidates in the all 41 constituencies. However, the party is in dire straits for a number of reasons, with its poor performance over the past five years being one of them.
Initially, many of its cabinet members had refused to accept its ticket. On June 19, two ticket holders, Chaudhry Ashraf from LA-3, Mirpur-III and Chaudhry Anwaarul Haq from LA-7, Bhimber-III, expressed their unwillingness to go into the fight on the PPP ticket.
Mr Haq, who was chairman of the PPP’s so-called good governance committee, announced he would contest as an independent candidate. However, Mr Ashraf was lured into withdrawing his decision.
On July 16, the PPP got a jolt when Mr Ashraf withdrew from elections in protest against the “hostile, negative, hypocritical and insincere attitude of Prime Minister Chaudhry Abdul Majeed towards him”.
On July 18, the PPP suffered another setback when Sardar Ghulam Sadiq, LA speaker and its candidate from LA-18, Sudhnoti-II, was disqualified by the high court for not being “sadiq and ameen”. However, he got relief from the apex court on Wednesday.
PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari acknowledged his party’s dismal performance. “There might have been mistakes by the PPP government. But from now onwards I will...take care of everything myself and won’t let anyone to do corruption,” he has said at many public meetings.
Biradrism holds the key
Fiery speeches by leaders of these parties apart, the truth remains that AJK politics — once a metaphor for ideology — has long been reduced to a paragon of biradrism.
“Ironically, it is no more the party or the political ideology, it’s the clan that comes first now...people go for the candidate from their clan, even if he is corrupt or incompetent,” laments Mohammad Aslam Mir, an analyst.
Of the major tribes, Rajputs and Jats dominate the political landscape in the southern districts of Kotli, Mirpur and Bhimber and happen to be each other’s traditional rivals. While Rajputs are in the folds of PML-N, the Jats who were by and large associated with PPP now stand divided after Barrister Sultan Mahmood, a key Jat leader, has switched to the PTI.
Mr Mahmood wields enough clout in the southern districts and poses more threat to PPP than PML-N. Perhaps that’s why Mr Bhutto-Zardari poured scorn on him at his Rawalakot rally, asking people not to vote for the “habitual turncoat and vagabond”.
Gujjars are also a major tribe but they have not restricted themselves to a particular party. However, they too follow their clan, regardless of political affiliations.
“Biradri considerations have stained the institution of politics in our small territory,” says Mr Mir.
There is no denying that PML-N has an edge over its rivals, because it has its government in the centre.
“A silent majority of voters favours the party that is simultaneously in power in Islamabad… They think that a likeminded government in both capitals can help AJK have smooth flow of funds and subsequent infrastructure development and economic benefits,” remarks analyst Raja Shaukat Iqbal.
“On not a single occasion, a party has come to power in AJK that didn’t have its parent party or supporters ruling Islamabad at that time,” he points out.
One school of thought believes that the refugee seats in Pakistan affect the mandate given by AJK people because elections in those constituencies are rigged by the parties in power there.
They fear that since nine of these seats are located in Punjab, the provincial PML-N government can easily manoeuvre to win them for its nominees, the same way the Muttahida Qaumi Movement has been securing two seats in Karachi for its candidates since 2006.
However, given some strict steps taken by the election commission, these seats may not be a piece of cake in the July 21 polls, assert the officials.
The apparent wave in favour of the PML-N notwithstanding, pundits predict a split mandate. But like the politics itself, the voters are also unpredictable. They say politics is a game of possibilities and therefore whoever plays his cards smartly will emerge triumphant on July 21.
Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2016