Even as the poll campaign to elect the 53-member regional assembly in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) has entered into the final phase, the 12 reserved seats for refugees have become a subject of debate.
Out of 45 general seats for which elections will take place on Sunday, 12 are reserved for 464,000 refugees - six each for those migrated from the Jammu division and Kashmir Valley division of Indian illegally occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJK) in 1947 and 1965.
Analysts point out the disparity in the distribution of these seats, saying that while 30,000 people registered as refugees from Kashmir Valley elect six representatives, 434,000 people registered as refugees from the Jammu division also elect an equal number of representatives.
Further, these people do not live in AJK but are scattered wide across Pakistan.
The rationale behind the allocation of these seats was to provide representation to the refugees in the state assembly, which now many see as the "trump card" used by Pakistan’s ruling parties to turn results in their favor.
Bashir Sadozai, a Karachi-based Kashmiri political analyst and author, however, supports the allocation of seats to refugees. But he also stressed the need to end their “misuse”.
"These seats have been reserved to provide representation to all segments of Kashmiri society, which is good,” he said, citing the example of the assembly of IIOJK, which has also 24 reserved seats for AJK as well as for the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region.
He acknowledged that successive Pakistani governments both at the center and provinces have misused them to gain influence in the Azad Kashmir assembly.
Pakistani ruling parties win these seats
Sadozai said any party winning a majority of the refugee seats takes the comfortable lead to form the government in AJK.
In the 2016 elections, the political parties ruling the center and provinces won these 12 seats. Ten seats were won by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif, which was in power in the center as well as in Punjab, home to the highest number of Kashmiri refugees.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of Prime Minister Imran Khan, which respectively ruled Sindh and northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) provinces in 2016 won one seat each.
Now in role reversals, the PTI is ruling the center and the provinces of Punjab and K-P, whereas the PPP continues to be in power in Sindh.
Danish Irshad, a Muzaffarabad-based political analyst says that the refugee seats have been often used for "political engineering" to form the government in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
"Kashmiri political and social circles have had serious reservations over this whole process. This (process) is widely seen as a hurdle in holding of free and fair elections in AJK," said while speaking to Anadolu Agency.
He said that the AJK Election Commission is in no position to exercise authority and regulate the conduct of elections in these 12 seats, which makes the exercise “suspicious” and “faulty”.
Moreover, he added, these constituencies are spread in three provinces, making it impossible for candidates to cover such a huge area to lure voters with their agenda.
The Jammu-1 constituency is the largest in terms of area, whose voters are spread over Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan provinces, involving 48 districts.
The voters of another constituency reserved for refugees from Kashmir Valley are scattered around in 27 districts of Sindh and Balochistan.
Least interest in local issues
According to Irshad, the Kashmiri voters settled in Pakistan have the least interest in the governance and administrative functioning and the problems of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
He said the provincial governments often use their "resources" to win these seats to have an edge in the AJK assembly.
Sadozai said that a large number of refugees, especially from the Jammu region, have mixed up with the local population in Pakistan and no longer hold a separate Identity.
"Hundreds of thousands of migrants from Jammu and Kashmir are residing in Karachi alone, but they have merged with the local population, and no longer identify themselves as refugees," he said.
New category of refugees
There is, however, another category of refugees, who have migrated from IIOJK in 1990 and afterward and are settled along with the border areas or in Muzaffarabad, capital of AJK.
These refugees comprising over 8,000 families have been lodged in different refugee camps, located along the Line of Control (LoC), a de-facto border that divides Jammu and Kashmir between the two nuclear neighbors.
Some of them have registered themselves as voters in the Azad Kashmir.
Waiting for passengers at the main bus stop of Garhi Dupatta town, located some 22 kilometers (13 miles) from Muzaffarabad, Mohammad Ilyas, a young rickshaw driver, said he would vote for a candidate belonging to his Pahari community. This community, which makes up 75% of this post 1990-refugee population, has been moved to a refugee camp near Garhi Dupatta by Pakistan Army.
These refugee camps are officially governed by community or biradari heads, who decide to support or oppose any particular candidate. Ilyas says that the refugees do not afford to go against the will of local administration, which provides them a monthly stipend and other facilities.
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