Beyond all expectations, Pakistan Muslim League-N has stood victorious in the recent Azad Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections. Several heavyweights including the ex-premier Barrister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhary, were not only defeated, his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf got reduced to a political non-entity in the region. Pakistan People’s Party, ruling the AJK since 2011, ran a formidable election campaign but was also wiped out from the political scene where it could secure only three seats out of 41.
Not a single stakeholder objected to the polling arrangements and the electoral process as they appeared flawless under the supervision of Pakistan Army and the local administration. However, the defeated political parties are flexing muscles to jointly launch a protest campaign against pre-poll rigging by which they mean the Federal Government’s announcement of developmental projects and distribution of funds through its party candidates, which created an uneven playing field for other contenders, deserving a strong condemnation.
Post Azad Kashmir elections scenario offers an opportunity to discuss the emerging trends and challenges which the new government has to cope with. To begin with, AJK has suffered the worst kind of financial corruption, bad governance and political instability in the last two decades. Sikandar Sultan Raja, the Chief Secretary of AJK, acknowledged publicly that AJK is infested with massive corruption. Speaking to a local Urdu newspaper, he said that a department purchased medicines costing seven lakh rupees but drew seventy million rupees from the national exchequer.
The last decade saw three governments toppled or indirectly controlled by military establishment or politicians sitting in Islamabad. Consequently, Kashmiri politicians’ role in decision-making process was margnalised. They turned up as collaborators instead of the representatives of their people. This was often objected by local citizens, questioning “why our politicians are dancing to the tune set by Islamabad?’’ This generated a huge wave of frustration among the local youth which makes up 62 per cent of the total population of AJK, unable to make a decent living and a significant space in policy-making circles.
The financial spending priorities of the AJK Government illustrate how it has been indifferent to the woes of common people. For instance, 2015-16 budget allocations depict that the government intends to spend only Rs12 billion on development while Rs61.5 billion would be spent to cover non-developmental expenditure. Public sector is massively over-employed and most of the financial resources are being spent to meet state employees’ salaries and perks. It has nearly 80,000 permanent employees while 20,000 people are working on temporary contracts.
“About 95.5 per cent of recurring budget goes to pay salaries while the remaining fraction comprising around five per cent is spent on all types of expenditure including the running of government departments as well as covering official expenditure,” confided Farhat Ali Mir, Secretary to the Government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir while talking to TNS.
In Azad Kashmir, unemployment rate is 14.4 per cent, whereas it stands at 6.2 percent for other provinces. A British Council survey of nearly eight hundred young people from all the three divisions of AJK just two months ago reveals an overwhelming majority of people term unemployment as one of the major issues they face besides poor infrastructure, lack of opportunities and space in political parties. They talked about socio-economic inequality and other governance issues.
Nepotism and Baradirism is the trademark of AJK’s political class. Contracts, lucrative jobs and even political slots usually go to the kith and kin of the ruling elite.
One of the major reasons of Peoples Party’s electoral defeat is attributed to Zardari House’s unnecessary involvement in local affairs. Now, the PML-N is also treading on the same path, repeating the same mistake by imposing several PML-N top leaders on AJK’s party branch and upcoming government. The case in point here is the nomination of indirect women seats in the assembly. Most of the nominees for the women seats have never been an active party worker in AJK territory. Public opinion, if it matters, is absoutely against the outsiders’ encroachment on the day to day affairs. It would be wise for PML-N leadership to respect Kashmiri primacy to run the government in Muzaffarabad.
The prime minister-in-waiting, Raja Farooq Haider Khan championed the cause of empowerment of AJK as well as the substantial financial, administrative and political autonomy for Muzaffarabad. Muslim League-N in its manifesto also promised to bring constitutional reforms, reduce dependence on Federal Government and generate economic opportunities by initiating ambitious mega contraction projects. For instance, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has announced to connect Muzaffarabad to Islamabad through a fast train, and build a motorway connecting the northern parts of AJK with the south-Mirpur, passing through the central districts of Poonch division. His federal ministers also made assurances that if PML-N gets majority in the elections, it would spend Rs50 billion in infrastructure development projects besides regular budget.
PML-N Pakistan is considered largely a pro-development party in AJK and people had pinned hopes that if PML-N clinches power, it would create job opportunities, new avenues for employment and mega projects with the help of its allies in Islamabad. Therefore, people voted for reforms, economic turnaround and devolution of power.
The historical defeat faced by the PTI, particularly its President, Barrister Sultan Mahmood after 25 years, is also a classical reminder to the political class. Barrister Sultan is considered an international icon who spends most of his time in world capitals on the pretext of internationalising the Kashmir cause. He never paid attention to help local people overcome their problems. Mirpur, home to 0.8 million diaspora where every tenth person is a British passport holder, is facing several major issues such as extraordinary power cuts, water shortage and poor road networks, despite having Mangla dam at the back of the city, which produces 1,150MW electricity.
Barrister Sultan has also failed to mobilise PTI’s traditional constituencies i.e. women, young people and the diaspora. PTI AJK has not awarded a single ticket to a woman. PTI had been heavily banking on electable politicians, in fact on turncoats but people did not vote for them as they had already seen their performance.
AJK is a difficult area to govern where baradiri politics, corruption, nepotism and over 100,000 employees unions are always ready to stand against the authorities on petty issues. Besides, none of the major political contestants managed to reach the Assembly which is not a good omen. For sure, they will leave no stone unturned to destabilise the PML-N government. Secondly, N-Leagues’ lawmakers want to secure rewarding ministries, which is a recipe for disaster.
Point of caution: the PML-N leadership should understand that its approval ranking couldn’t be measured in its success in AJK or previously in Gilgit-Baltistan polls. It reminds us that in 2009, People’s Party won GB elections and subsequently won Azad Kashmir polls but lost to PML-N in 2013 general elections.