Perched in lofty mountains, the scenic city of Muzaffarabad, capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), is festooned with billboards, banners, and pictures of leaders and candidates.
The election fever has taken over the region, which is going to elect regional assembly on July 25.
Over 3.2 million voters will elect a 53-member assembly for a five-year term. Out of 53 seats, 45 are general, while eight are reserved for women, technocrats and religious scholars.
The city located at the confluence of Neelam and Jhelum rivers looks in a celebration mood, with enthusiastic activists of different political parties roaming around with flags and banners to exhibit their prowess.
There is a festive look at the city's famous Azaadi Chowk (freedom roundabout) - a replica of historic Lal Chowk (Red Square) located 125 kilometres away across the Line of Control (LoC) in Srinagar, the capital of Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK).
Life-size billboards, posters, and banners have also overtaken the capital's main Chattar chowk near the parliament building.
Residents in small villages along the 57km Srinagar road along the banks of Jhelum River leads to the heavily militarised LoC – a de facto border that divides the region between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
Candidates backed by their party leaders both from Pakistan and AJK are holding huge public rallies and corner meetings, simply defying the coronavirus restrictions.
Neither candidates nor participants wear masks, a requirement made mandatory by the Election Commission.
The National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC), which devises the guidelines and policy for the control of the coronavirus pandemic in Pakistan had recommended, postponement of polls till September. But the Election Commission after consulting political parties rejected the recommendation but called for strict observation of Covid protocols.
In a last-ditch effort to woo the voters, candidates and their supporters are also going door-to-door with new promises.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency Syed Khubaib Shah, who runs a small printing press said he has got double the orders of printing posters and banners compared to previous 2016 polls.
"It is more fanfare compared to the previous elections," he said.
Although a staunch supporter of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Nawaz Sharif, three-time premier, his printing press is fast rolling out posters of rival Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
"I will still vote for PML-N. Business is business and politics is politics,” Shah said with a broad smile on his bearded face.
A tough contest is expected between the PTI and the PML-N, the incumbent ruling party in AJK. The PTI, however, seems to have brighter chances to form the government, according to local surveys and political estimates.
Muzzaferabad, which has nine seats out of 45 general seats, is considered a decisive battlefield to form the government.
"We are going to go with change this time," Umer Sharif, a shopkeeper at Khawaja market said.
PTI smells power
He was referring to PM Imran's famous slogan "change", which he introduced in his elections campaign in the 2018 general elections and managed to secure the highest number of seats.
"I think the PTI deserves a chance. We Kashmiris have tested several parties in the past but they disappointed us in terms of development and economy. Let's give him [Imran Khan] a chance," he contended.
Bilal Ahmed, who runs a small business, however, foresees the next government led by the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
With strong roots in Muzaffarabad, the party of slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto has formed the government in this part of the picturesque Himalayan region four times in the past.
"The PPP is in a strong position, mainly in Muzaffarabad. We are confident to clinch five to six seats from here," he contended rejecting the surveys, which suggest that the party can win only one to two seats in the city.
Raja Zakir, another businessman from Muzzaferabad, supports Jamate-e-Islami, a mainstream religiopolitical party.
"I don't mind if my candidate wins or loses. I will simply go for the right candidate," he said.
According to Raja Iftikhar, a Muzaffarabad-based political analyst, the PTI's entry with "full force" has added the festivity to the electioneering.
"Contrary to the 2016 elections, the PTI is putting resources as it is confident to form the government," he said.
The PTI could secure only two seats in the 2016 elections.
The region’s politics was earlier dominated by the Muslim Conference – the oldest political party of undivided Jammu and Kashmir.
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