Three political parties, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former premier Nawaz Sharif, and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) look racing neck-and-neck as the poll campaign takes feverish pitch across the length and breadth of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).
Over 3.2 million voters are going to elect the 53-member legislative assembly for a five-year term in the elections scheduled on Sunday. Out of 53, there will be direct elections on 45 seats, while eight are reserved for women, technocrats, and religious scholars.
But analysts and people on the streets believe that Pakistan’s ruling PTI is emerging as a favourite. The history of elections in the region, since 1975, points out that parties ruling Islamabad or its allies have won the elections in the region.
"It has been a tradition in Kashmir that the voters vote for the party which rules Islamabad. And I see slim chances of any change this time too," said Syed Abrar Shah, a Muzaffarabad-based political commentator.
He said the reason behind such a rationale is that the AJK is heavily dependent on resources from Islamabad and the ruling party liberally provides such resources.
"For many here, same party rule in Islamabad and Muzaffarabad means more funds and projects for AJK, mainly the rural areas," he said.
In 1975, then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto introduced the parliamentary system of governance in the region.
This first government headed by Bhutto's PPP was dismissed in 1977 due to imposition of the martial law in Pakistan by the then army chief Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. There were no elections until 1985.
So far, the PPP and the Muslim Conference have formed four governments each, whereas the PML(N) has managed to rule AJK once.
Before launching its chapter in 2011, PML(N) used to support the Muslim Conference in the polls. The reason behind PML(N)'s move was the Muslim Conference had supported the then military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who had ousted the Nawaz Sharif government through a bloodless military coup in 1999.
Ameer Mughal, another Muzaffarabad-based analyst said there will be no walkover for the PTI. He said the two other parties PML(N) and the PPP were giving a stiff fight and are equally in the race.
"Islamabad's ruling party is going to win the elections in AJK once again. But not easily this time," he said.
According to him, the performance of the PTI over the past three years, since it assumed office in Islamabad, is proving a disadvantage for its candidates.
He, however, said the PTI has the "advantage" of being new to the region and that brightens its chances of appearing a favourite.
Shah predicted that out of 45 general seats, the PTI can secure 18-22 seats, the PPP may garner 8-10 seats and the PML(N) 4-6 seats. The local Muslim Conference and independent candidates may win another 3-4 seats.
Sajjad Mir, a political analyst, said there are chances that history may be reversed this time in the region.
"No doubt, it's been a tradition that the AJK voters usually prefer the party ruling in Pakistan. But this time, the ground reality is different. We may have an upset this time," Mir said.
"Even if the PTI manages to win against all these odds, it will be by a thin margin, and will need coalition partners to form the government with a weak foundation," he said. He referred to issues such as a price hike and increasing inflation as issues working against PTI.
"The PTI, despite using all the government resources, could win only 8 seats in the nearby Gilgit-Baltistan region last year. It was the independent candidates who later joined the PTI to help it form the government. But here in Kashmir, hardly any independent candidate can win," he said.
No caretaker government
Also, there is no arrangement for installing a caretaker government in AJK ahead of elections. The incumbent government supervises the elections.
"It was the caretaker setup, which stretched to five months instead of its constitutional term of three months, that helped PTI to win the elections in GB. Whereas, according to the Constitution, there is no provision of a caretaker setup before polls in AJK," he said.
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