By Zulfiqar Ali
The first round of local body elections in Azad Kashmir has been held on Saturday, ending months of uncertainty about whether these elections would take place at all. The elections were mostly peaceful, with only a few violent incidents.
Uncertainties were created because Azad Kashmir had not had local body elections for 31 years. And obstacles were being created by the Muslim League-N and PPP, the two main opposition parties in the region.
Despite promises, both the PML (N) (formerly the Muslim Conference) and Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) did not hold local elections during their decades-long rule in the country, which ended in 2021. By the way, some PTI ministers were also opposed to holding these elections.
Credit for these elections goes to Tanveer Ilyas, a Kashmiri leader from a political family who joined PTI in 2020, and pledged to hold local elections during his election campaign in 2021. PTI won those elections and Sardar Abdul Qayyum Niazi was elected PM of Azad Kashmir. However, eight months later, Niazi resigned after PTI members, with Imran Khan’s approval, moved a no-confidence motion against him. Sardar Tanveer Ilyas was then elected prime minister in April. So it took him just seven months to fulfill his promise of local elections.
During the first phase, elections have been held in the districts of Hattian Bala, Neelam Valley and Muzaffarabad. For the first time, there were no allegations of rigging. This is also the first time that Ilyas’s administration totally relied on local police for security during voting as the Pakistani government refused to provide police and paramilitary support.
There will now be two more rounds of elections, to be held in the two administrative divisions of Poonch and Mirpur. The last phase will be held on 8 December.
With this promise fulfilled, PTI is likely to fare well in these elections. But its biggest challenge is to raise the human development index in Azad Kashmir, create new employment opportunities and generate more sources of income. The previous governments neglected these areas, leading to a low HDI rate and 10% unemployment.
If these issues are not addressed, India might fully exploit the situation because the gap between the ruling elite and the people on the streets is widening, triggering a sense of alienation at the grassroots level.