AJK Election Forecast

AJK Election Forecast
Maryam Nawaz Sharif has just wrapped up a cracking tour of electioneering in Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK) where she was swamped by adoring crowds. Her energy – sometimes as many as three rallies every day – infected the people who erupted with rousing welcomes wherever she went. Rarely has AJK supported an opposition leader in such a thumping manner. Some of the scenes were reminiscent of the fervent rallies by Benazir Bhutto when she returned to Pakistan as a conquering heroine in 1986. The political norm is for Kashmiris to support and elect the party in power in Islamabad because of the dependent relationship with Pakistan. Can it be different this time round?

The PTI is the front runner not because it is the most popular party – far from it – but because of this dependent relationship. People don’t like “wasting” their votes on the opposition when there is no chance of the opposition forming a government in Islamabad and presiding over their fate for at least two more years. Still, Imran Khan’s rallies have lacked enthusiasm and those of his lieutenants have been drab because they have nothing concrete to pledge or any singular achievement to tout. Their one point agenda – “the opposition are all crooks, thugs, “dakoos” – is ringing hollow by the day because not a single institution of the state – NAB, FIA, FBR etc. – has been able to get a single conviction from the courts despite the fact that many judges have often bent over backwards to accommodate the government.

On the contrary, the PTI government’s mismanagement of the economy has inflicted so much pain on lay Pakistanis that Nawaz Sharif’s era seems like a golden age! A recent Gallup Poll claims that nearly 80% of Kashmiri respondents are worried about the dismal state of their everyday lives – lack of clean drinking water, electricity load shedding, inflation, inadequate health facilities, unemployment, education, etc. Apparently only 3% think “corruption” is a bothersome issue.

Worse, the PTI’s India-Kashmir policy of blowing hot and cold hasn’t won it many admirers. After Narendra Modi knocked out Article 370 in August 2019, Imran Khan went to Muzaffarabad and exhorted the enraged Kashmir Prime Minister, Raja Farooq Haider, not to get emotional and march across the Line of Control to provoke India. Subsequently, the Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmud Qureshi, took the position that the abrogation of Article 370 was “an internal matter” of India while Islamabad seriously thought about opening up trade with India. Furious back pedaling by PTI leaders since then has not allayed Kashmiri suspicions that the PTI government’s India-Kashmir policy is impotent.

The PPP also has a historical vote bank in AJK. The fact that it is now openly allied with the Miltablishment may count as a plus factor in this week’s elections. Voters know that it can’t possibly form a government in Islamabad now or in the future, nor one in Muzaffarabad, but a vote for it may enable it to become part of a coalition government with the PTI in AJK and thereby safeguard their local interests. This may be why Bilawal Bhutto has scooted off to the US in the midst of an election campaign. He obviously thinks there’s not much he can do to sway the AJK elections beyond the given parameters of the situation.

Two recent developments have cast a shadow on these elections. The first is the blatant transgression of electoral rules and codes of conduct by the PTI’s Minister for Kashmir and Gilgit Affairs, Ali Amin Gandapur. The fact that he is still canvassing despite orders by the Election Commission to leave the area confirms the weakness of the EC and suggests it will not be able to enforce its writ and conclude a clean and free election. The second is the withdrawal of the ISI’s Station Commander for AJK who is accused of trying to manipulate the elections to hoist a particular PTI financier as the next PM of AJK. Imran Khan’s candid admission that there may be “Do Numberiay” (crooked) candidates on PTI tickets hasn’t exactly led to a surge in PTI’s popularity!

The most striking thing about this election campaign, however, is Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s strident and confident tone. Those who accused Nawaz Sharif and Maryam of silently towing Shahbaz Sharif’s pro-Militablishment line must think again. Maryam has continued to drum up several themes: Nawaz Sharif’s critique of Miltablishment leaders for blatant partisanship is not an attack on the institution of the Pakistan army – the implication here is that this critique of leaders may be relaunched if they don’t “behave”; the designated “traitors” in the PMLN are actually true patriots with a popular pro-people history; the Miltablishment and PTI are no longer on the “same page” and serious differences have cropped up – which is meant to suggest that political space for the PMLN  may open up sooner than later; a prerequisite for attending to Pakistan’s mounting problems is the granting of sanctity to the popular vote (“vote ko izzat do”) which means the Miltablishment must not connive or conspire to rig elections and deny legitimate government to Pakistan.

The Gallup Survey claims that Imran Khan is the most popular politician in AJK. But the current President of AJK, Masood Khan, a Miltablishment appointee, doesn’t seem to inspire Kashmiris. It also says that a majority of Kashmiris rate the performance of the current PMLN Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider as quite satisfactory. More significantly, if one measures popularity by the size and animation of the rallies, Maryam Nawaz is leading from the front. So what sort of result should we forecast?

The balance of power in AJK is weighted in favour of the Miltablishment and its selected PTI party and prime minister in Islamabad. The PPP’s alliance with them will ensure that in the worst-case scenario they will still be able to form a coalition government. But a strong oppositionist PMLN is likely to make their ride rough, biding its time until there is a shake up in Islamabad that prods the PPP to switch sides in Muzaffarabad.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.