POK underwent the 11th general election on 25th July. The outcome held no surprise. It is invariably the party in power in Islamabad, which wins the election in the territory. The outgoing regime of Raja Farouk Haider was elected when PML (N) of Nawaz Sharif was in power in Islamabad. The State Assembly has 53 seats. This includes 33 general seats, 12 refugee seats, and 8 reserved seats for women, technocrats, and overseas Kashmiris. The reserved seats are divided amongst the parties on the basis of their performance in the first two categories. Hence, they do not affect the balance. Out of the remaining 45 seats, PTI won 25 seats, PPP 11, and PML (N) 6 seats. Smaller splinter groups like Jammu and Kashmir People’s Party (JKPP) and All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference got 1 seat each. The result in one seat is disputed. PTI’s tally has gone up from 2 seats in the last election to 25 seats in the election just concluded. Both PPP and PML (N) have alleged election rigging.

By Amb D P Srivastava

What stands out in this election is the demise of regional parties. The election was fought between three main protagonists – PML (N), PTI, and PPP. All three are mainstream Pakistani political parties. All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, which is the oldest party in the territory bagged only one seat. This was won by Sardar Atiq Ahmad, the son of Sardar Qaiyum Khan, who served as POK’s President in the past. The absence of regional parties is no coincidence. Pakistan has always discouraged the rise of ‘parochial tendencies.’ This norm is now incorporated in POK’s constitution. Separate ethnic or cultural identity is not encouraged. ‘Azadi’ of the people of POK is limited to conforming to the ideology of Pakistan.

Refugee seats are not confined to a geographical area. They are reserved for refugees from Kashmir Valley and Jammu scattered all over Pakistan in small numbers. This lends itself to manipulation and accounts for the ‘predictability of the system in returning the party in power in Islamabad to a comfortable win in POK. At least in six constituencies representing ‘Kashmir Valley, the number of votes cast ranged from 1500 to 6,000. In one constituency representing ‘Kashmir Valley’ (LA 43), the total votes cast were around 1500 with 782 for the winning candidate (PTI) and 720 for the losing candidate (PML-N).

Overall, there are 4,64,000 ‘refugees’ distributed in 12 seats. Of these, there are 30,000 refugees from Kashmir Valley who are allotted 6 seats, while the remaining 6 seats are for 4,34,000 refugees from Jammu Division. The total number of voters in POK is 3.2 million. Thus, the Kashmiris are a mere 6.4 percent of ‘refugees’; the overwhelming majority are from Jammu. The people from Kashmir Valley are less than 1 percent (0.9 %) of the total electorate of POK. Though Pakistan has tried to appropriate the ‘Kashmir cause’, there are few Kashmiris in Pakistan with POK politics dominated by Poonchis from Jammu.

The disproportionate weightage given to ‘refugees’ only serves to make a propaganda point. Internally, it helps distort the democratic process. The bulk of the refugee seats are invariably bagged by the party in power in Islamabad or provinces. In the 2016 elections, PML (N) which was in power both at the Federal level and Punjab won 10 seats. This time PTI is in the seat of power in Islamabad and Lahore, and has won 9 seats.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that POK elections produce a legislature, which has very limited legislative authority. Under the 1974 constitution, all the legislative powers were vested in the Council headed by Pakistan’s prime minister. Under the 13th amendment of POK’s constitution, the Council has been relegated to an advisory role. But its powers have not been transferred to the elected legislature. Pakistan now exercises power over 22 subjects within POK. The elected legislature needs Pakistan’s approval even in respect of the remaining 32 subjects. The people of ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’ are not masters of their destiny. The substance of power is in the hands of Islamabad, not Muzaffarabad.

The election campaign saw heated exchanges. A PTI leader described Z.A. Bhutto as a traitor. However, the sharpest exchange took place between Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Imran Khan. Imran Khan referred to Nawaz Sharif watching his grandson play polo in England. Responding to personal attack, Maryam mentioned that Imran Khan’s sons were being brought up by Mr. Goldstein – a reference to their Jewish lineage from the mother’s side.

Maryam Nawaz Sharif said that Imran Khan was trying to snatch away the identity of POK by making it a province of Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan denied the allegation. He said that after the people of POK will decide to join Pakistan in a referendum in accordance with UN resolutions, he promises them a second referendum to decide whether they want to stay with Pakistan or become independent. The exchange shows that both the protagonists were trying to tap into the voter appeal of the ‘independence’ option. Imran Khan’s statement has however drawn criticism. Maulana Fazlur Rehman said that this was a departure from Pakistan’s historical position. Traditionally, Pakistan has never accepted the ‘independence’ option. Imran Khan has only held out a vague promise. The two referendums mean that the people of POK will have to first accept Pakistan and then opt-out of it. If he was serious about it, he could have just suggested the inclusion of the ‘independence’ option in a single referendum.

Indeed if Prime Minister Imran Khan is sincere about his offer, the first step should be to allow pro-independence parties to participate in democratic processes. This would expose them if Pakistan is sure that the independence option does not have popular support.

Interestingly, while refuting Maryam, Imran Khan has not closed the door to a change in POK’s status. If he just wanted to deny her charge, he could have said that there would be no change in the status quo. The Pakistani establishment, in particular Imran Khan, is still trying to hit back at the deletion of article 370 by India. In November 2020, during the election campaign in Gilgit-Baltistan, he had similarly talked about giving that territory a ‘provisional provincial status.’

This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them.