General elections in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) are being held today (Thursday) after aggressive campaigns by contesting parties that saw scathing verbal duels and bloody violence prompting deployment of army troops for a peaceful conduct of the democratic exercise.
As many as 423 candidates, from 44 political parties, are running for 41 directly contested seats in the 49-member AJK Legislative Assembly. The contestants include four former prime ministers and over a dozen ministers of the state. Over 2.67 million people are registered to vote including 1.48 million men and 1.19 million women.
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Of the 41 seats up for grabs, 12 are reserved for refugees from Indian-controlled Kashmir in Pakistan. According to a breakup, two seats each are in Karachi and Rawalpindi, and one each in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Narowal, Gujrat and Multan. Some 438,884 registered voters, among them 254,817 men and 184,067 women, will elect their representatives on these seats. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Muslim Conference (MC), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are the most notable among the 44 registered political parties in AJK.
Similarly, the 423 candidates in the run include four former prime ministers of the state: Raja Farooq Haider of the PML-N, Barrister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry of the PTI, Sardar Attique Ahmad Khan of the MC, and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed of the PPP.
Majeed is contesting from his native Chaksawari town of Mirpur; Mahmood is running from Mirpur city; Haider is in the race from Hattian Bala in Chakar; while Sardar Attique is a candidate from Dhirkot. Apart from them, over a dozen former ministers are also in the race. Notable among them are Akbar Latif, Chaudhry Yaseen, Javed Iqbal, Matloob Inqalabi, Pervaiz Ashraf, Ali Shaan Soni, Asfar Shahid, Farzana Yaqoob, Ghulam Sadiq, Sardar Qamar Zaman, Javed Ayub, Mian Afzal Waheed, Bazil Naqvi and Chaudry Abdur Rasheed.
Do-or-die for PML-N
The PML-N, which formed its AJK chapter in 2011, is considered a new entrant in the region’s politics. However, it is increasingly important for the party to win the vote because it would set the tone for its future in the region. “It is a do-or-die battle for us,” says a PML-N lawmaker who holds a strong say in AJK’s political matters, on the condition of anonymity. “There is no way to retreat.”
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Traditionally, the party that rules in Islamabad has won the AJK elections. Given the fact that the PML-N is in power at the Centre, the party has an edge over its rivals. This time, however, the absence of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from AJK’s political scene on account of his ailment allowed opposition leaders, including Imran Khan and Bilawal Bhutto, an opportunity to exploit the situation in their favour.
Sources in the PML-N admit that their party’s failure to secure a majority in the AJK Legislative Assembly could land it in deep trouble allowing the opposition to have an upper hand in dealing with the government on crucial issues like backdoor negotiations on Panamagate scandal.
“If we fail to lead the electoral tables, then this will give the opposition a golden opportunity to cash in on the situation by claiming that they have been vindicated and the people have rejected us,” the PML-N leader said. “This is our nightmare – something we would never want to happen.”
However, ex-premier Farooq Haider, who is also president of the PML-N AJK chapter, seeks to downplay the hype attached to the polls. “It would be exaggeration to say that it is a do-or-die battle for us,” he told The Express Tribune. “The PML-N may be a new entrant in the AJK politics, but it is the oldest party of Pakistan.”
The PPP chairman has warned that his party would launch street agitation if the PML-N tried to rig the elections. “If the PML-N rigged the elections or resorted to violence, then people would forget the 2014 dharna,” Bilawal told a news conference in Islamabad on Tuesday.
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He was referring to the marathon sit-in of the PTI at Islamabad’s D-Chowk. “Our party will once again come to power in AJK,” said a confident Bilawal, whose party won the last general elections in the region.
However, the PTI chairman has said he could smell the ‘change’ in AJK’s politics. “If the PTI comes to power, then we devolve power to the grassroots level so that members of the Legislative Assembly can focus on legislation,” he told election rallies in Bhimber and Mirpur on Tuesday.
The region saw frenzied electioneering with bloody clashes mainly between PPP and PML-N supporters in some parts of the state. Subsequent recrimination and fears of bloodshed during the election prompted deployment of army troops for the exercise.
More than 17,000 Pakistan Army troops have been deployed for a peaceful conduct of the elections. Election material has been sent to the 29 constituencies of AJK and 12 other seats of Kashmiri refugees settled in Pakistan. The army troops will be assisted by the Frontier Constabulary (FC), Punjab Constabulary and AJK police.
AJK Election Commission spokesman Tahir Mahmood Butt says adequate arrangements have been put in place for the conduct of free and fair elections. “We have made fool-proof arrangements for the elections, and Pakistan Rangers have also been engaged for this purpose. They would be deployed inside and outside the polling stations. Any violation of code of conduct shall not be tolerated and action shall be initiated accordingly,” he told The Express Tribune.
Polling will start at 8 am and close at 5 pm, but the voters present inside the polling stations will be allowed to cast their votes even after that time. The AJK Election Commission has set up 5,427 polling stations and 8,046 polling booths in 41 constituencies. More than 10 polling stations have been declared ‘most sensitive’, and 1,000 ‘sensitive’.
It will be official holiday in the region. The WAPDA Chairman has ordered uninterrupted supply of electricity in AJK on the election day and a day after.
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