The Dynamics Of AJK’s Upcoming Assembly Elections19 June 2011
Islamabad: Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) is all set for elections on the June 26th of this month when around three million voters would be expected to vote 41 lawmakers into the assembly. The house has five reserved seats for women, plus one each for religious scholar, professional commonly known as technocrat and for Kashmiris settled abroad. The 49-member house has a power to elect its Prime Minister and President. Twelve members will be elected from among the refugees from Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir settled in different parts of Pakistan. Unlike Pakistan, the elections process in AJK has been uninterrupted since 1985 which has strengthened local democratic institutions. All regional and mainstream political parties are running election campaign and engaged in making new electoral alliances to enhance their prospects of success. The emerging political scenario indicates that the upcoming elections would be an interesting contest between the local chapters of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) – PML (N). Another major player, the Muslim Conference (MC), will also be in the race for power while the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Party (JKPP) led by Sardar Khalid Ibrahim Khan have entered into an electoral alliance with the PML (N) which has boosted their prospects in several constituencies. Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Jammu & Kashmir Liberation League (JKLL) and Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) have also fielded their candidates. However, their chances of success in AJK seem limited. Interestingly, several nationalist parties on the name of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) also fielded candidates that used to boycott the elections. A few aspirants refused to sign nomination papers which required showing allegiance to Pakistan. Therefore, elections commission had rejected their papers but they could not make it a big political issue. The Pakistan Peoples Party, which won the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) Assembly election two years ago, is trying its best to win the AJK polls too. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, has also weighed in and has visited Muzaffarabad twice to reinvigorate the morale of his party workers and kick start the election campaign. He has promised a free, fair and transparent election to the people of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and has pledged to resolve all their issues once his party is elected to office. The PPP has already constructed a comprehensive election strategy to ensure its victory. It encouraged factional rift within the Muslim Conference which caused a vertical split in the party. As a result of this split the former AJK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider Khan established a PML (N) chapter in AJK. This move divided the rightist vote bank and severely weakened the Muslim Conference. The AJK chapter of PPP led by Chaudhary Abdul Majeed and Chaudhary Latif Akbar consolidated its position due to the political acumen of the two with the help of its central leaders particularly Syed Khurshid Ahmed Shah, Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo and Faryal Talpur. The Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs Manzoor Ahmad Wattoo went to great lengths to take the former AJK premiers Barrister Sultan Mahmood and Sardar Yaqoob Khan into the fold of PPP which enhanced its prospects. The PPP has also developed an understanding with Sardar Attique Ahmad Khan where he would be made President in case the PPP wins the elections. Sardar Attique has already paid a visit to the Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain for his support to counter the PML (N) influence in the refugees’ seats located in the Punjab province. PML (N) is trying to make its way up but needs more time to get its act together before it can put up a serious challenge. The party leader Raja Farooq Haider has flagged up major socio-economic and legal contentious issues between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad during his brief stint in power as Prime Minister. This made him immensely popular with the youth of AJK but the establishment did not like his style of politics. PML (N) has its eyes on the nine refugees’ seats in Punjab, a state where it is in power and where it enjoys mass support. It also has a solid vote bank in some areas of Kotli and Muzaffarabad. If Nawaz Sharif takes some interest in the local affairs of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and leads the election campaign his party’s standing could be greatly strengthened. So far, Nawaz Sharif has left the AJK’s affairs largely to the lower level leadership which may not be able to counter the PPP’s political offensive backed by the federal government says a senior leader of PML (N). Interestingly the Muslim Conference (MC) which is one of the oldest political parties of AJK is fast losing its ground to the mainstream parties of PML (N) and PPP. A large number of Muslim Conference stalwarts have left the party including the son of the current AJK President Raja Zulqarnain Khan. Ali Zulqarnain has joined the PPP along with the speaker of AJK assembly who is also known as close aide of President Zulqarnain. Traditionally, the Pakistan Muslim League or the establishment has been a major source of support for the MC but that does not seem to be the case in this election. It is widely believed that the intelligence agencies or army is not lending its support to its traditional allies (read MC) as they are already overstretched and do not want to confront another issue maintain Dr. ZU Khan former vice Chancellor AJK University. On the other hand, the people of Azad Jammu and Kashmir traditionally vote for the pro-Islamabad political parties. There is a political convention that confrontation with the federal government undermines AJK’s regional interests and slows down its development. In this context the people usually vote for the ruling party in the center. Unlike Pakistan, the anti-incumbency factor does not work in AJK against PPP as it has been in the opposition since 2002. Keeping political wrangling aside, there are several genuine issues which need urgent attention. A few candidates identified the need to double check the existing voters lists. Huge anomalies have been reported in these lists particularly the refugees’ lists. MQM also managed to get two nominees elected in the last elections which invited enormous criticism about coercive measure used by MQM to get favorable results. The upcoming election on refugees’ seats would not be different from the previous one and is likely to create a lot of fuss. These seats are considered as leverage in the hands of Islamabad to make sure their cronies’ form a majority in Muzaffarabad. The prevailing scenario shows that PPP is likely to win the polls in Azad Jammu and Kashmir as major political figures and clans are now backing the party. The big challenge for PPP will be the nomination of the leader of the house. There are several old leaders and new comers who are eying the top slot. It would also be contest between the old loyalists and who recently joined party such as former Prime Minister Barrister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhary. However, no one in PPP has any hint about the AJK’s next Premier as President Asif Ali Zardari is keeping his cards close to his chest. If the People Party wins elections it would help it to enhance its fast declining image and popularity in Pakistan. It would be tantamount that the only the PPP has national wide support not any other party. Additionally, it might help the PPP leaders and liberal segment of the society to vigorously support peace process between India and Pakistan. It can be an opportunity, provided used intelligently, to create further mass support in the AJK to take more confidence building measures.