Local government elections in Azad Jammu and Kashmir start from November 27. The exercise will continue till December 8
ocal government elections in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) start on November 27 and will continue till December 8. The electionsare likely to be a three-way contest among the mainstream parties, i.e., the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI-AJK), the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP-AJK), and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz-AJK. The PPP and the PML-N have not entered into a formal alliance but in several constituencies they are supporting each other’s candidates. Smaller parties, including the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Party are also taking part and hope to have an impact. The opposition parties have been opposing phased elections apprehending use of administrative machinery in support of the ruling PTI. They have been demanding elections under the supervision of the Pakistani security forces.
The month-long election campaign has generated a lot of enthusiasm among young people and many of them are contesting. The elections, being held after three decades, are seen as a major step towards reviving grassrootsdemocracy. The candidates have come up with detailed manifestos promising to bring about change through development in their areas.
The local government elections were last held in 1991. Despite assurances and promises, the Supreme Court’s orders in this regard, and citizens’ demands; successive governments have not held the local government elections. It has been argued that the established political leaders were not ready to allow a new generation to step into the political arena.
According to the Election Commission of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, 10,556 candidatesare taking part in the elections. 12.5 percent of the seats are reserved for women and 12.5 percent for the youth to enhance their participation in the decision-making. The total number of registered voters is 2,950,129, including 1,383,100 women. 5,357 polling stations have been set up across the region. The total number of union councils is 278 and of wards2,086. In all, 2,364 people will be elected to various offices.
The restoration of local governments had been an important campaign promise by the PTIin July 2021. Prime Minister Sardar Tanveer Ilyas Khan has said that holding the local government polls was a key PTIpledge. 78 PTI nominees have already been elected unopposed as local councillors. Khan has predicted a PTI victory with an overwhelming majority.
The elections have generated a lot of enthusiasm among young people and many of them are contesting, but several political and civil society leaders believe that the current local government setup does not provide adequate administrative and financial powers to the elected representatives of the people.
After Government of Pakistan refused to provide security personnel to assure peaceful conduct of elections, Chief Election Commissioner Justice Abdul Rasheed Sulehria (retired), has directed the commissioners of the three divisions and district administrations to constitute committees to oversee the polling stations.
Most of the election campaigns have benefitted from the social media. Almost all contestants are using Facebook, WhatsApp groups, and other internet platforms to promote their message. These tools have allowedthe candidates a vast outreach at relatively low cost. Some overseas Kashmiris are also running campaigns for their favourite candidates through Facebook and WhatsApp. It is also believed that wealthy Kashmiris living outside the region are also financially supporting their preferred candidates.
Speaking to The News on Sunday, Raja Mansoor Khan, the PTI-AJK general secretary, said the elections will promote democracy at the grassroots level. He said 2,300 candidates from the PTI, including a dozen women candidates, were contesting the elections. He dismissed the opposition reservations as realisation that the PTI was winning with a clear margin. PTI’s social media platforms are the backbone of its campaign.
Shaheen Kausar Dar, a former AJK legislative assembly deputy speaker said that these elections will start the process of the devolution of powers to the lowest level. As a result, he said, common people will become a part of the political system. He hoped that this will create a sense of ownership and participation in governance.
Several political leaders and civil society activists The News on Sunday talked to believed that the current local government action plan did not give adequate administrative and financial powers to the elected representatives. The leader of the opposition in the AJK Legislative Assembly, Chaudhry Latif Akbar, said that the Pakistan Peoples Party-AJK was willing to cooperate with the government to empower the local government system. Speaking at an event related to the campaign he commented that without the necessary devolution of financial and administrative powers to the grassroots level, the local bodies will not be able to serve the citizens as per their expectations.
Chaudhry Muhammad Saeed, the former minister and a central leader of the PML-N, also said that the local governments had to be empowered politically and financially. He suggested that the government should allocate grants to the districts based on their population, area and poverty indicators. The districts should then allocate funds to theirunion councils. He said local governments could expedite economic growth and bring prosperity provided they got adequate funding and support from the state government.
The local government elections in AJK can prove a game-changer for the democratic system. Effective local democracy can facilitate public participation, improve service delivery, strengthen communities and improve development outcomes across the region.
The writer is a freelance contributor based in AJ&K. She tweets @hunain_mahmood