MUZAFFARABAD: After a long wait of over three decades, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) will finally go to the phased local government elections on Sunday (today), with polling in the first leg in Muzaffarabad division amid concerns over the “minimal security cover” to be provided by the local police personnel.
However, senior officials who spoke to Dawn on Saturday appeared confident that they would manage to conduct the exercise in a largely peaceful and satisfactory manner, saying that while around 4,500 police personnel would man 1,323 polling stations, Quick Response Force (QRF) comprising 500 policemen would remain on alert at the backend to deal with any emergency situation.
According to officials, as many as 697,732 voters, including 321,536 females, would exercise their right to franchise from 8am to 5pm to elect their nominees from some 750 wards of urban and rural councils in the three districts of Muzaffarabad division — Neelum, Muzaffarabad and Jhelum valley — from amongst 2,716 contestants mostly belonging to ruling PTI and opposition PPP and PML-N.
Around 19 candidates in Muzaffarabad division have already returned unopposed.
Of the 1,323 polling stations, 418 have been declared ‘sensitive’ and 257 ‘most sensitive’, where three and five police personnel will be deployed, respectively. At other polling stations, usually two policemen are deployed, according to officials.
Talking to Dawn, divisional commissioner Masoodur Rahman dispelled the impression that security arrangements were scant and said the entire division had been divided into 11 zones, 130 sectors and 64 QRF points to be headed by senior police and administration officials, who had been given the powers of first-class magistrate.
“Apart from the QRF, internal security framework is also in place and may be operationalised if the situation warrants so,” he said, referring to sections 129 and 130 of the criminal procedure code which allow district administration to call in army personnel in the event of any emergency.
He said polling staff, along with the polling material, had reached their respective polling stations in the company of the police personnel.
Appreciating that so far all the candidates and their supporters had shown a great sense of responsibility, he expressed the hope that they would continue to demonstrate the same attitude on the polling day. “I assure people that security measures are adequate, leaving little room for anyone to take law into their own hands. They should go to their polling stations with a complete sense of security and cast their votes fearlessly.”
He made it clear that criminal proceedings would be initiated against rioters and troublemakers, regardless of their affiliation, which might also lead to the disqualification of the candidate concerned under the relevant laws.
The commissioner also advised residents of other areas against travelling to Muzaffarabad division on Sunday to “avoid any inconvenience”.
The last LG polls in AJK were held in 1991 and ever since 1995, when the next polls became due, each government has been running LG institutions through ‘administrators’, either government servants or party workers.
Since the early days of the previous PML-N government, the issue of LG polls had remained subjudice in the AJK’s superior courts. In December last year, after protracted legal proceedings, the AJK Supreme Court had directed the government to make arrangements to hold LG elections by August 2022 in the light of the 2017 census.
In July this year, however, the AJK apex court reviewed the deadline on government request and directed it to hold LG polls by Oct 15, following which the election commission fixed Sept 28 for the polling. The PPP and PML-N then sought yet another extension until March 2023 but the apex court refused to grant the request and extended the deadline till Nov 30. While the commission then fixed Nov 27 for polling across AJK, it was due to the refusal by Islamabad to provide additional 40,000 personnel that the phase-wise election was announced for Muzaffarabad, Poonch and Mirpur divisions on Nov 27, Dec 3 and Dec 8, respectively.
The decision drew flak from the opposition on the grounds that absence of adequate security arrangements could lead to violence, but AJK Prime Minister Sardar Tanveer Ilyas did not strongly object, as he did not want this exercise to derail.
Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2022