Islamabad-based parties made electoral inroads in the region taking advantage of 12 refugee seats and preventing a pro-independence political outfit from taking part in regional polls.
Prime Minister Imran Khan's political party is all set to form the next government in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, locally called Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK).
After winning most of the seats of the regional assembly in the polls held on July 25, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) followed the long-standing pattern of a party ruling at the centre emerging victorious in the AJK polls.
The race this time was however tighter than usual and also held in a highly charged atmosphere mainly because of the direct participation of Prime Minister Khan and his rivals Maryam Nawaz of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the election rallies.
About 3.2 million people were registered to vote to elect the 53-member AJK assembly for a five-year term, according to election authorities. There was a direct election on 45 general seats, while the remaining seats — eight reserved for women and one each for the religious scholar, a professional, commonly known as a technocrat, and for Kashmiris settled abroad — will be divided among the political parties on the basis of their victory ratio on general seats.
The PTI has secured at least 25 out of the assembly’s 45 general seats, while the PPP and the PML-N have won 10 and 6 seats respectively. Two state-based parties -All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference (AJKMC) and Jammu Kashmir Peoples Party (JKPP) also managed to secure one seat each, according to unofficial results.
In the past polls held in July 2016, the PML-N won the election in AJK with a two-thirds majority and made its party's regional chief Raja Farooq Haider as prime minister.
Criticism over refugee seats
Of the 45 general seats of the assembly, 33 are located in Pakistan-administered Kashmir or AJK with over 2.82 million registered voters.
However, there are 12 seats reserved for around 430,456 Kashmiri refugees who reside in Pakistan, not in AJK, and the constituencies are scattered in all four provinces.
The main purpose to allocate the seats was to provide representation to the refugees--who migrated from Indian-administrated Kashmir during 1947 and 1965 and on other occasions -- in the AJK state assembly.
However, over the years, there has been a growing concern in various segments of the people about the significance of having reserved seats for the refugees
Analysts believe that because of the inability of the administration and election commission of AJK in these constituencies in Pakistan, the refugees’ seats are considered to be the biggest obstacle in holding free and fair elections to the AJK Assembly.
“Pakistan’s political parties use their influence and resources to win the polls in AJK through these seats,” Raja Nafees, a political activist in District Bagh says, “and thus these 12 refugees’ seats in Pakistan influenced the overall election and played a major role in the formation of the government in AJK.”
New electoral laws
News electoral laws were introduced through an amendment in AJK’s constitution in 2018, only to allow those political parties favouring Kashmir's accession to Pakistan to take part in the polls.
Also, under the new law, a candidate, while submitting nomination papers during the polls, is required to sign an affidavit acknowledging that he or she favours “Pakistan’s ideology, the ideology of annexation of disputed Kashmir region with Pakistan and the integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan.”
Analysts believe that the new amendment was made to further strengthen restrictions on pro-independence Kashmiri groups, such as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), or individuals, from taking part in the polls.
JKLF, headed by Yasin Malik, a pro-independence Kashmiri leader imprisoned in India’s Tihar Jail, seeks reunification of Jammu and Kashmir state free from Indian and Pakistani intervention.
Currently, under the new electoral rules, 32 political and religious parties have been registered. They included Pakistan’s major political parties as well AJK-level political parties.
However, JKLF and other pro-independence groups are not registered with the region’s election commission.
Interestingly, Prime Minister Khan, while addressing partys’ electoral rallies in AJK on July 23, assured AJK residents that Islamabad would grant them the right to live as an independent nation if they decided to do so even after acceding to Pakistan through the United Nations-sponsored plebiscite.
“Remember, the decision has to be made by the Kashmiris themselves. And the day is not far when you will decide about your future status of your own free accord,” said Khan, amid rounds of applause from the charged gatherings.
Political parties in Pakistan-administered Kashmir
Analysts believe that polls in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in the past had predominantly been a contest between the local leaders of the contesting parties, with low-profile support from their parent parties in Pakistan.
The 2006 polls were the last electoral exercise that AJKMC, the oldest and long-time ruling party, contested to fight the PPP and retain its government in the region.
AJKMC is traditionally known as Muslim Conference, the oldest and important political party at the state level. Formed in 1931, Sheikh Abdullah was its first president. But in 1939, the party split into two parts. Ghulam Abbas became the president of the MC while Sheikh Abdullah became the president of the National Conference.
In the past, the MC, which is now operating as AJKMC after partition, used to win most of the polls with support from the PML-N.
However, a few months before the 2011 polls in AJK, PML-N has established its own chapter in the region after AJKMC’s leaders Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan and his family supported the military coup by General Pervaiz Musharraf that toppled Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1999.
In the last AJK polls held in July 2016, the AJKMC could win only three of the 41 seats and in current polls, the party has only won one seat.
The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation League (JKLL), another state-based party, was formed in 1962 by a dissent. AJKMC leader K.H. Khurshid became the first elected AJK’s President, having defeated AJKMCs Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan in the presidential election in 1961.
JKLL gained significant victories in the beginning polls held since 1974. But the party gradually became weaker and has now become inactive in the region’s electoral politics.
JKPP, which also won a seat this time, was formed in 1992. But it could not perform well in the region’s electoral politics.
Pakistani political parties entered into the AJK’s politics after the PPP founder and the former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto introduced his party branch in the region and captured power in AJK in the first elections held under the 1974 Interim Constitution.
A section of AJK political circles criticizes Bhutto for his move for allowing Pakistan’s parties in AJK politics, terming it weakening the case of Kashmir cause.
PTI became a new entrant into AJK politics after Khan launched the party’s branch in the region in 2015, just a year before the next general elections and it made its parliamentary representation.
Kashmir barely matters in the polls
It was the first election in AJK since New Delhi in August 2019 abolished the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir.
It was expected that voters in the AJK will react to the allegedly ineffective measures taken by the governments in Islamabad and Muzaffarabad following India’s moves
However, the Kashmir dispute and situation in the Indian-administrated Kashmir are mentioned in the speeches made during the political parties’ campaigns and rallies, analysts believe.
On the ground, caste or tribes/clans (locally known as biradris), civic and development issues, and government jobs matter for the voters in AJK.
“At the domestic level, caste or cross-cutting cleavages based biradri and region play a significant role in shaping and reshaping AJK’s electoral politics,” Mirza Hasan, an academic from District Mirpur and teaching politics in Karachi.
He said that not a single party has put forward a comprehensive future plan of action to develop the region and sort out its uneven relationship with Islamabad. “Kashmir dispute has always been a secondary issue in elections,” Hasan told TRT World.
“Only pro-independence groups, such as JKLF, do politics of cross Line of Control (LoC) Kashmir.”
When New Delhi instigated a political crisis on August 5 2019 by ending the semi-autonomous status of the region, two factions of JKLF separately organized a march towards LoC in condemnation of the lockdown in India-held Kashmir.