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How ‘azad’ these Kashmir polls?

Why is India’s foreign ministry so quiet about the ‘Azad’ Jammu and Kashmir election?

Written by D. Suba Chandran |
July 11, 2006 12:11:59 am

The election for the eighth ‘Azad’ Jammu and Kashmir National (‘A’JK) Assembly are scheduled to be held on Tuesday. With a peace process ongoing between India and Pakistan and with increased emphasis being given to the involvement of Kashmiris on both sides, the outcome of the election is significant for all the three actors: India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris.

Would these polls be free and fair? Given the political turmoil in Pakistan, the ‘A’JK national assembly has been relatively stable. The last three elected in ’01, ’96 and ’91 respectively completed their five year terms. Democracy should however be judged by certain standards, rather than by whether polls were held at regular intervals. That is where the ‘Azad’ Kashmir becomes an ‘occupied’ one, given the limited powers of the assembly and the pre- and post-poll political manipulation to which it is subjected.

The ‘A’JK assembly has 48 seats (now 49) — 28 to be elected from the districts of Azad Kashmir and 12 from among the ‘refugees’ from Jammu and Kashmir staying elsewhere in Pakistan. Besides there are eight reserved seats to be filled in by an electoral college comprising 41 elected members of the assembly. The reserved seats include five for women and one each for technocrats, Ulema/Mushaikh and overseas Kashmiris.

As usual, the Northern Areas are not a part of this process. The election process could be seen in three categories — members directly elected within the PoK, those elected by ‘Kashmiri refugees’, and those elected by the electoral college. By and large, the polls for the 28 seats to be directly elected inside PoK would be decided by the popularity of the parties or the personalities who are contesting. With the JKLF nominations being rejected, the contest is likely to be between three major parties — the ruling Muslim Conference (MC), PPP-AJK and the Peoples Muslim League (JK-PML) led by Sultan Mahmood. The JKLF, as always, refused to sign the ‘accession’ column, which demands those contesting would work for ‘Azad Kashmir’ acceding to Pakistan. There are other parties; both MMA and MQM have opened chapters and filed nominations. However, the contest is likely to be between the three parties — in particular the MC and JK-PML.

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The ‘refugee’ seats are likely to be crucial in deciding the outcome of election. The voters’ list and those who vote have always been subject to rigging; Islamabad has been manipulating the 12 refugee seats to decide who would rule Muzaffarabad. Besides this, intelligence agencies with support from Islamabad also manipulate the post-election political scenario in PoK. In the ’01 election, Sardar Qauyyum led the MC against PPP and won 30 seats against the PPP’s 17. However it was not Qayyum or the majority in the MC who decided the PM; the military imposed Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan as the PM although the majority within the MC wanted Sardar Attiq Khan. The coming polls too are unlikely to be free and fair.

The main contest now is going to be between the MC and JK-PML, with perhaps the PPP-AJK splitting the votes. The MC today is weaker because of internal splits. The anti-incumbency factor, problems relating to rehabilitation after the earthquake and corruption would greatly influence the decision of voters vis-a-vis the MC. At the same time, the PPP — the only other party to have formed the government earlier — is also weak ever since Sultan Mahmood left to form the PML. This leaves Sultan Mahmood and his PML as the third factor in the election. Given these contradictions, it is likely to be a mixed result, paving the way for manipulation from Islamabad.

Who, then, will become the next PM of ‘Azad’ Kashmir? Given that the PML-Q led by the Chaudhrys openly supports the MC, the 12 refugee seats are likely to go to the MC. In that case, Sardar Atiq Khan, Qayyum’s son and MC president, could get elected. Sultan Mehmood is also frantically looking forward to the support of the military regime. Since Qayyum is not the most favourite in the military circles today, the possibility of the regime extending its support to Sultan cannot be ruled out. In that case, even if the MC wins more seats, it could be broken or forced to support Sultan as the PM, with Atiq getting the presidentship.

It is unfortunate that the world has chosen to ignore this political drama in PoK. Compare this process with what happened during the ’02 J&K assembly election, conducted under the eyes of the world. There were many obstacles, with militants raising the level of violence and terrorising the local people against participation. No such issues confront the PoK poll, as the powers that be in Islamabad make all the crucial decisions. As for the Northern Areas, nobody is asking questions about when an election will be held there.

While the silence of international community on the ‘Azad’ Jammu and Kashmir election is understandable, why must the MEA keep so quiet?

The writer is assistant director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies

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First published on: 11-07-2006 at 12:11:59 am

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