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The elections in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) are to be held on 25th July 2021. These elections hold too much prominence as it is a litmus test for the political parties of Pakistan – especially for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) as it is the ruling party in Pakistan. The results of the elections in AJK will delineate whether the people of the region are satisfied with the performance of PTI and its Kashmir policy or they accept the narrative of other parties – particularly the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) which claims that it is fighting the non-democratic forces in Pakistan.
Up till now, all the parties are claiming that they will vanquish the AJK battlefield, but if PTI fails to win the 2021 elections in Azad Kashmir, this will be a test case for it for the 2023 elections as the party has already lost many by-elections in Pakistan including those it formerly won. The shifting paradigm in the political atmosphere has made the situation almost unpredictable but, like every other election, there are some favorites in the AJK theatre which are more likely to win the elections.
While the election results are unpredictable, one thing that is crystal clear is that the losing parties will blame the winners for rigging the elections like every other election in the country. The election commission has allotted the election symbols to parties and independent candidates in total 45 seats out of 53 while 8 seats are reserved for women, technocrats, and religious scholars.
Parties Participating in the Elections
The election commission has issued the election symbols to many parties contesting elections on different consistencies. 53 members of the Azad Kashmir Legislative Assembly will be elected by 3.2 million people for a period of 5 years. Among several parties taking part in elections, 5 parties hold significance as they have a good voter base in the region and the whole of Pakistan.
Among these 5, PTI and PML(N) are said to be the major contestants as per media. PTI has fielded its nominees for all 45 seats. On the other hand, PML(N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have put their candidates in 44 constituencies each. However, among them, PPP is least likely to win a significant number of seats as most of its followership is confined to Sindh while it struggles even to find good candidates in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK).
The image of the PPP’s former head Asif Ali Zardari has proved to be inimical for the party despite the popularity of its founding father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and his daughter, Benazir Bhutto. PML-N and PPP have been in government in the previous era while PTI has never held the reigns in the region till now.
Other major players of the elections are ALL Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference (AJKMC) and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). They have put up candidates on 42 and 40 constituencies respectively. AJKMC is one of the key players in the region as it is a symbol of the Kashmiri people’s allegiance to their cause.
The history of the party dates back to 1932; the party initially was under the influence of the leaders who supported the merger of Kashmir to India. AJKMC was renamed the ‘National Conference’ in 1939 to suit the secular narrative of the leadership of the party, leading to the diarchy in the party. The Muslim leaders amended the constitution of the Muslim Conference and renamed it the AJKMC, modified its rationales, and opened its membership for all the people of the state.
The party officially split its ways from National Conference and, on 13 June 1941, the breakaway factions of the National Conference revived the erstwhile AJKMC. The party then supported the accession to Pakistan and had struggled for this cause in the past. The party gained power in the region in 1955,1985,1990,1991, 2001, and 2006.
On the other hand, TLP is new in the electoral game in the region and is also facing strict opposition from the government in Pakistan, as most of the mainstream leadership of the party is incarcerated in jails and the party has been proscribed by the government of Pakistan under the Anti-Terrorism Act, but the election commission has still allotted it the election symbol because the government has not yet filed any case in election commission to un-register the party.
In the past, the party despite facing a media blackout since its inception had astonished the major political parties by gaining more than 22 lac votes in the 2018 elections because of their narrative which succeeded to attract the ideology of the people of Pakistan. TLP has the silent support of voters.
The party’s main support comes from the Barelvi school of thought while some people from other sects have also been observed supporting the stance of TLP on the blasphemy issue. If the party bagged a significant number of votes in AJK, as it did in the 2018 elections, it could prove to be a question mark on the public acceptance of the government’s proscription of the party.
Key Issues of AJK
One of the major concerns for the people of Pakistan and Kashmir is the independence of Indian Illegally Occupied Kashmir (IIOK). The people of AJK and Pakistan always seem to be worried when it comes to the question of the plight of the people in the IIOK region. They want a strong foreign policy regarding IIOK. Among other issues, development and infrastructure hold seminal significance.
The region is replete with beautiful valleys and tourist attraction spots but lack of infrastructure has led to a lack of promotion of tourism potential of the region. Tourism can prove to be a game-changer not only for the people of the economy of the region but also for the whole of Pakistan. It can also minimize unemployment and can help to show the real picture of how Pakistan is treating AJK when the Indian state is committing war crimes and human rights violations in IIOK.
This assists to strengthen the country’s stance on the Kashmir issue. Furthermore, most of the areas in the region lack the availability of electricity and gas. The people of the region want both of these fundamentals at the earliest as this could make their lives much easier. All these goals can only be achieved by having a strong and corruption-free government in the region and the opportunity to decide the future of the region is in their hands now.
The Winner of the 2021 Azad Kashmir Elections
Just like any other election in the country, all the parties are claiming to be the winners of the 2021 elections in Azad Kashmir. On 20th July 2021, Shehbaz Sharif claimed that the AJK elections would prove to be a decisive declaration of trust of the people of the region in the leadership of Nawaz Sharif. Maryam Nawaz has also been found making such claims and has carried out a huge election campaign by visiting the different areas of AJK.
The internal strife of PML (N) has affected the image of the party and is most likely to cast a daunting impact on the 2021 AJK elections. Another factor that can prove to be inimical for the PML (N)’s vote bank in the region is the lack of good governance of the previous government of Raja Farooq Haider.
Meanwhile, the PPP leadership is also claiming to be winning the AJK elections but with less confidence as they know the predicament of their party outside Sindh. The party has ruled in the region three times but the people of the region as well as of the whole country do not seem to be impressed by the novel leadership of the party.
While there are rumors in the country that the party’s leaders have made some sort of clandestine deal with some non-democratic forces in the country and are likely to reach the apex of power in the 2023 elections in Pakistan. Such rumors, however, hold no significance as there is no such evidence and the establishment has kept itself away from political matters for long now.
The chances for PPP to win the AJK elections are the least as the people of the region seem to be inclined towards other political parties. The past trends show that the ruling party in Islamabad wins the elections in AJK, and so PTI might vanquish the electoral battlefield in the region. The need for a strong government will force the people of the region to support PTI in the coming elections.
So, possibly PTI will be the winner of the elections in AJK elections, but there will be a close competition between PTI and PML (N). On the other hand, AJKMC is not likely to gain any significant votes, but it may gain 1 or 2 seats because of the caste-based political culture in the region.
Similarly, the recently proscribed TLP is likely to bag a huge number of votes as it did in the 2018 general elections in Pakistan because of its strong narrative and grass level reach to the people but it is hard for them to win any seat. They might be able to win 1 or 2 seats but this is least likely as the party’s mainstream leadership is incarcerated and the AJK government and government of Pakistan have proscribed it.
However, the party is known for surprising results in the elections. Their votes could also prove to be game-changers for PML (N) and PTI as they can damage the voting base of these two parties. Although the people of the region have many dreams and hopes from the upcoming government, they will have to face the same fate as they were facing earlier because of the emergence of the politics of the electives and the caste-based politics in the region.
If the people of the region as well as of the whole country want to change their fate, they must realize that the change of party in government will not prove to be lucrative. They will have to vote for the candidate who is not corrupt and is from the middle class of the society. The dynastic politicians and the dominant elite class can never be the answer to the grievances of the people of the country.
The awareness of the masses is fundamental for strengthening democracy and starting an era of progress in the country. For the people of AJK, it is the time to reject dynastic politics as well as class-based voting. The key to changing their fate is in their hands. Your one vote to the wrong candidate can inflict calamity of corruption and bad governance on the whole region.
One must use voting rights wisely and rationally and should seek collective good instead of personal good. It is time for the people of the country to rethink their voting pattern and their leaders. The original leader can only be from among the masses, not from the upper class of society.
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