The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is all set to form the next government in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) after winning the legislative assembly elections held there on July 25. AJK is a part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir that is administered by Pakistan.
The election was marred by violence; at least two PTI workers were killed in shooting incidents. The results did not come as a surprise. If anything, the election revealed how the region’s electoral politics remain dominated by political parties based in mainland Pakistan with little or no focus on the region’s future.
The party that rules Pakistan usually wins assembly elections in AJK. Thus, for instance, in the 2016 AJK assembly election, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the then ruling party of Pakistan, won the AJK election with 31 seats, followed by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muslim Conference (MC) with three each, while the Jammu Kashmir Peoples Party (JKPP) and PTI secured one seat each.
In 2021’s election, however, the PTI won 25 of the 45 seats. The PPP won 11 seats, while PML-N could secure only six seats. The two AJK-based parties, MC and JKPP managed to secure one seat each, according to unofficial results.
Over the decades, AJK based parties have virtually lost out to Pakistan’s national parties or those coming from mainland Pakistan. The MC is the oldest political party of the region, but has not been able to singlehandedly win the election for decades. The only time the party won and came to power was through its alliance with ruling parties in power in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.
The election in AJK takes place through a very complicated process, putting to question the transparency of the entire exercise. Out of the 45 general seats in the assembly, 12 are reserved for Kashmiri refugees who live in mainland Pakistan. Analysts say that these refugee seats are one of the biggest obstacles to holding a transparent election in AJK.
“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 told TRT World. This time too, the 12 reserved seats “influenced the overall election and played a major role in the formation of the government in AJK.”
Moreover, new electoral laws of the region bar pro-independence parties from taking part in the electoral process. According to the new electoral rules, a candidate is required to sign a document acknowledging that he or she favors “Pakistan’s ideology, the ideology of annexation of disputed Kashmir region with Pakistan and the integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan.”
However, Pakistan’s government maintains that the people of AJK have the right to form an independent state. Prime Minister Imran Khan has said often that his government would allow a referendum in AJK to offer the people a chance to decide their own political future.
In the wake of the just-concluded election to the AJK assembly, Khan tweeted that “as an ambassador for Kashmir, I will continue to raise my voice on all international forums including the UN to ensure the international community fulfils its commitment of self-determination to the Kashmiri [people] through an UN-sponsored plebiscite.”
It lays bare the fact that there is little clarity in the Pakistani state’s vision for AJK’s political future.
It is important to note that the electoral campaign was largely a contest among Pakistan’s major political parties rather than an opportunity for the AJK people to discuss issues of importance to the region.
There was little significant electoral debate on Pakistan’s border dispute with India over the issue of Kashmir, for example. Not a single party put forward a manifesto to focus on the unresolved political relationship of the Kashmir Valley with Pakistan.
It is time that mainland political parties of Pakistan and its ruling elite provide space to AJK’s local parties and live up to the vision often conveyed in political rallies.