Pakistani Side of Kashmir Goes to Polls: Key Things to Know

Pak premier Imran Khan addressing an election rally in Bagh district.

Srinagar:  Over 3.2 million voters are set to elect the 53-member assembly of Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir for a five-year term on Sunday.

More than 700 candidates from 32 political and religious parties are contesting for the 45 general seats. Out of the rest eight reserved seats, five are for women and three seats, one each for religious scholars, technocrats, and overseas Kashmiris. The members for these seats are nominated after the elections.

Out of 45 general seats, 12 seats are reserved for Kashmiri refugees who had migrated from the Indian side of Kashmir in 1947 and 1965 and are settled in various parts of Pakistan. Therefore, in the 10 districts of Pakistani side of Kashmir, elections will take place on 33 seats only.

Out of 700 candidates, only 20 women candidates are contesting elections from general seats.

Major political parties contesting polls

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Prime Minister Imran Khan has fielded 45 candidates. The party is seen as a favorite to form the next government given the tradition that the party ruling Islamabad, wins elections in Muzaffarabad.

In the 2016 elections, the party could win only two seats.

A former Prime Minister, Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry, who is leading the party in the region, is the strong candidate to head the next government. He is contesting from his stronghold, Mirpur, a wealthy district of the Jammu division.

However, Sardar Tanveer Ilyas, an overseas billionaire, and a close confidant of Imran Khan has overshadowed Chaudhry. Ilyas, who is currently serving as an Adviser to the Chief Minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province Sardar Usman Buzdar is contesting from Bagh district.

According to political analysts, Prime Minister Khan’s aggressive stand on India’s scrapping of autonomy to the Indian-administered Kashmir in August 2019, can benefit the party in the elections.

However, the party’s average performance in terms of economy and failure to control the rising inflation is seen as a disadvantage for its candidates.

Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)

The center-right Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) of the three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is currently ruling Kashmir.

It won the 2016 polls, won 31 seats, and formed the government.

Led by Prime Minister, Raja Farooq Haider PML-N is contesting polls on 44 seats. Haider, whose many family members live in the Indian-administered Kashmir is an outspoken politician who has angered many because of his blunt remarks.

The infrastructure development, mainly construction of road networks across Kashmir over the past few years is seen playing in favor of the PML-N. But not being in power in Islamabad, is its biggest disadvantage.

Haider is contesting from capital Muzaffarabad.

Pakistan People’s Party

The center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the slain Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto is also in the neck-and-neck race. Led by Ms. Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the party has fielded 44 candidates.

The PPP had won the 2011 elections when it was ruling Islamabad. However, analysts predict a tough task for the party.

Sardar Yaqoob Khan, a former president, and Chaudhry Latif Akbar, a former minister are leading the campaign for the party in the region.

The PPP, whose leader, and former Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had introduced the parliamentary form of government in the AJK in 1975, has ruled the region four times

Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference

Jammu Kashmir Muslim Conference is the oldest political party of the undivided Jammu and Kashmir, which was formed in 1931 in Srinagar.

It has also ruled the region four times.

However, after PML(N) spread its wings in the AJK ahead of the 2011 elections, Muslim Conference lost a major chunk of voters. In the 2016 elections, it won only two seats.

Led by former Prime Minister Atiq Ahmad Khan, the party has fielded 42 candidates in the forthcoming elections.

District Bagh, the hometown of Atiq, is considered the party’s stronghold.

Jamat-e-Islami

Jamat-e-Islami, one of the mainstream religious parties in Pakistan, has a sizeable vote bank in the Pakistani Kashmir, although the party has never been able to win more than a couple of seats.

The party is contesting on 30 seats.

Abdul Rasheed Turabi, a sitting lawmaker, was considered to be its strongest candidate. He has, however, withdrawn from the contest in favor of PTI’s Tanveer Ilyas.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a party, which is banned in Pakistan is a new entrant in the electoral politics in Pakistani Kashmir.

The far-right religious group was banned by the Pakistani government in April this year for staging violent protests.

The party represents a section of Sunni-Barelvi school of thought, which has considerable support base in the region.

Analysts say the party, although, not in a position to win any seat, may dent the vote bank of the right-wing political parties.

Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Party

Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Party (JKDP) is the only woman-led political party in Pakistani Kashmir. Headed by Nabila Irshad, a local politician, and lawyer by profession, the party had fielded 18 candidates to contest its first-ever election. But later withdrew the majority of candidates in favour of the PTI. The party has now settled to contest only from three seats. Irshad herself is contesting from Sundhnoti district.

Close race between 3 Pakistani political parties

Even though three national parties PTI, PML (N) and PPP look racing neck-and-neck as the poll campaign takes feverish pitch across the length and breadth of Pakistani Kashmir analysts and people on the streets believe that Pakistan’s ruling PTI is emerging as a favorite.

The history of elections in the region, since 1975, points out that parties ruling Islamabad or its allies have won the elections in the region.

The Muslim Conference- the oldest political party of the undivided Jammu and Kashmir has also won polls when it had allied with a ruling party in Islamabad.

Caste, ethnic loyalties decide poll favorites

Unlike the comparatively homogeneous nature of Kashmir Valley across the Line of Control (LoC) under Indian administration, the Pakistani-controlled Azad Kashmir is vastly heterogeneous, inhabiting scores of ethnicities, locally known as biradaris.

Six major castes or biradaris, Gujjar (Chaudhry), Sudhan, Rajput, Syed, Khawaja, and Awan have been dominating the political scene in the region. Political parties have distributed mandates among representatives of these castes depending on the concentration of their populations in the particular constituencies.

In the outgoing state assembly, over a dozen lawmakers are Gujjar, the largest caste in Pakistani Kashmir.

Kashmir As Election Issue

In every election campaign, the situation in the Indian side of Kashmir figures prominently, although the governance record of the ruling party in Islamabad and in Muzaffarabad are also high on the list of campaign issues.

The last election was held days after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani by Indian forces. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, then beginning to feel the heat of the Panama Papers case and other corruption charges (he would be unseated by the judiciary a year later) declared election day as a “Black Day” in solidarity with the people of the Kashmir, and pronounced his party and government’s support for the “just struggle for self-determination” of Kashmiris.

This year, the focus is on India’s actions of August 5, 2019 to change the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir.

Departing from Pakistan’s declared policy on Kashmir, Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday said that Islamabad would let the people of Kashmir decide if they want to join Pakistan or become an “independent state”.

Addressing an election rally in Tararkhel area, Khan also rejected claims by a leading Opposition leader that his government was working on a plan to make Kashmir a province of Pakistan.

The response came after Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Maryam Nawaz addressing an election gathering in PcK on July 18 said that a decision had been taken to change the status of Kashmir and make it a province of Pakistan.

Prime minister said that a day would come when Kashmiris would be allowed to decide their future as per the UN resolutions and expressed the confidence that the people of Kashmir on that day would decide to join Pakistan.

He added that following the UN mandated referendum, his government will hold another referendum to give the people of Kashmir a choice to either live with Pakistan or become an independent state.

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