NEW DELHI, Jul 19: Even as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is locked in a one-upmanship race with the Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif on cornering India over violence in the Srinagar valley, Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) is getting ready for army – supervised assembly elections under the shadow of violence and arson.
The field is open only to parties that have accepted accession of PoK with Pakistan. More than 17,000 army personnel and 15,200 paramilitary personal are already on “election” duty, prompting Pakistan People’s Party to cry foul. In fact, the PPP has already hit the streets saying that the Sharifs are rigging the one day- ballot on July 21.
Elections in PoK are generally a mere formality with the King’s party in the saddle in Islamabad securing the mandate. Pakistan Muslim League -N (PML-N) is the front runner this time around though Rawalpindi’s Team B (Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI) is giving both PML-N and PTI a run for their money.
Repeated clashes between PML-N and PPP have claimed several lives. Minister for Electricity Faisal Mumtaz Rathore was attacked during a campaign meeting. And at an Eid Milan party, activists of both parties opened indiscriminate fire, and indulged in acts of arson. Scores of people including a former minister were injured.
As many as 427 candidates are in the race for the 41-elected seats in the 49-member PoK assembly, which has very limited powers. Of them, 328 are contesting in the 29 constituencies in PoK and 99 will be competing for 12 Kashmiri refugee constituencies spread across Pakistan. An estimated 21.81 lakh voters will decide their political fortunes.
While the PPP is going alone, the PML-N has entered into an alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jammu Kashmir People’s Party (JKPP). The Sharifs party tried to woo the Muslim conference (MC) chief, Sardar Attique but without success. The big brother wanted the Sardar to vacate his party’ strong holds for PML-N. This was not acceptable to the MC supremo, and he closed ranks with Imran Khan’s party. The new combine has fielded joint candidates for seven seats.
In a bizarre display of politics without principles, the Jamaat has struck a deal with the Muslim Conference for one seat. With N-support, it is trying its luck in two seats. In all, the JI has eight candidates in the fray. The pro independence parties, the All Parties National Alliance (APNA) and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) have refused to sign the condition of accession of PoK with Pakistan. And have not fielded any candidate.
Kashmir National Party (KNP) headed by London -based Dr. Shabir Chaudhary has put up one candidate, Mir Afzal Suleria from Muzaffarabad. The KNP has a two-point manifesto. One: AJK should get 70% profit out of major projects launched by Pakistan in its territory. Two: 12 seats of Pakistan based refugees should be abolished.
Many local stalwarts are vying to enter the PoK assembly. Prominent amongst them are PoK Prime Minister Abdul Majid, PoK PTI President, Sultan Mahmud Chaudhary, who is also a former PoK premier, and PoK PML-N President Raja Farook Haider. PPP is seeking a fresh mandate based on its ‘stellar’ performance. “The outgoing Mehdi Shah Governmentopened three medical colleges while its predecessor had failed to set up even one medical college”, the party manifesto says.
But the PPP’s Achilles heel is its poor governance record, sayspolitical analyst, ErshadMahmud,who blames PPP’s central leadership for the poor show by PoK unit. “PPP government in PoK was not given a free hand by the central party leadership to run the local affairs”, he remarks.
PPP dissidents have generally migrated to PTI giving it a leg-up. At least three cabinet ministers joined the PTI along with their supporters after elections were announced. No doubt, PPP is in trouble following this setback, its chairman Bilawal Bhutto had an extensive tour of PoK districts and addressed huge rallies. In these rallies, he accused that Nawaz Sharif is “jeopardizing the issue of Kashmir by building his associations with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi” and pledged that he would take back the entire Kashmir from India.
PTI its manifesto has vowed to make PoK self-reliant in all respects. Women empowerment is its talking point though it has not fielded a single woman candidate. Special attention to education, health and industry are the other electoral planks of PTI.
The PML- N has pledged the “revival of self-rule in Azad Jammu and Kashmir” if voted to power. It promised a “responsible, authoritative and dignified” government. It has vowed to facilitate intra-Kashmir trade and travel, “as a continuation 1999 Lahore declaration”. And has committed to spend an additional Rs 50 billion on roads and other infrastructure.
Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of London- based Muhajir leader Altaf Hussain is once again trying its luck in two constituencies in Karachi which are reserved for Kashmiri refugees. The party had won these seats in the 2006 and 2011 elections but observers say the wind is no longer favourable to the MQM as the party is at the receiving end of the para-military force, Rangers, which has been asked to ‘clean up’ Karachi.
PML-N has already established its vote bank in PoK. It has an edge in nine Kashmiri refugee constituencies located in Punjab, ruled by prime minister’s younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, according to political Maqsood Muntazar. Moreover, PML-N is on a strong wicket as it has allied with JI and JKPP.
Party-wise position in the outgoing assembly: PPP -29; PML (N) – 11, MC- 5,MQM-2, JKPNP -1 and PTI- 1. Eight seats in the 49-member assembly are filled through nomination; five of these seats are reserved for women while one seat each is earmarked for religious scholars, professionals and for Kashmiris settled abroad.