Voting has begun in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir general elections under the supervision of AJK judiciary, Pakistan Army and Rangers after highly charged election campaigns by the three mainstream political parties.
The polling will be held on a direct adult-franchise basis to 45 seats of the 53-member AJK Legislative Assembly, including 33 meant for all 10 districts of AJK, and 12 including six each meant for Pakistan-based refugees from Kashmir valley and Jammu region.
The remaining eight reserved seats – five for women and one each for technocrats, Ulema/Mashaikh and overseas Kashmiris – will be filled in by the electoral college.
Polling, which began at 8am, will conclude at 5pm while results at the polling stations will be announced within an hour after the polling ends, according to the AJK Election Commission officials.
A total 3,220,546 (3.22 million) registered voters will vote in the 45 constituencies of the AJK Legislative Assembly. Of them, 2,817,090 voters are registered in 33 constituencies of the AJK assembly. The remaining 373,652 voters are registered in the six constituencies representing the refugees from occupied Jammu and 29,804 are registered in the six constituencies representing the refugees from occupied Kashmir Valley.
A total 691 candidates, including 381 belonging to a total of 32 registered political parties and 310 independent candidates, are running for 45 seats.
THE PAST: In the past, AJK general elections had predominantly been a contest between the local leaders of the contesting parties, with a low-profile support from their parent parties or like-minded governments in Pakistan.
Later, these elections became a direct battle between the central leadership of the mainstream parties, relegating their local leadership as well as a few state-based parties to the background.
In the 2006 general elections, the indigenous and long-time ruling party — All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference (AJKMC) — fought the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to retain power.
Five years later the main contestants in the general elections were the PPP and the PML-N, the latter having been launched hardly seven months before the polls, while the AJKMC trailed at the third position.
Then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani, his cabinet members from the PPP, and Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, then Punjab chief minister, from the PML-N had taken part in election campaigns.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) was launched in the AJK in 2015, just a year before the next general elections and it made its parliamentary representation when its regional president Barrister Sultan Mahmood contested and won a by-election after resigning from his assembly seat that he had clinched as a PPP nominee in 2011.
The PPP and the PML-N campaigned vigorously in 2016 polls and created an impression that the AJK elections had been hijacked by the Pakistan-based parties. The PPP leadership had called Nawaz Sharif a traitor for being [Narendra] Modi’s friend. PTI Chairman Imran Khan had half-heartedly taken part in the election campaign and criticised the Sharif family for its alleged corruption.
However, this year the pre-poll campaign has surpassed the previous records of aggressiveness towards their rivals.
PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz and PTI’s federal ministers Ali Amin Gandapur and Murad Saeed took part in election campaigns and hurled allegations against each other.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his four appearances in campaigns, levelled corruption allegations against the opponents.
The AJK Election Commission, while dismissing allegations of vote theft by the PML-N, said that watertight security and other measures have been taken to hold elections in a free and fair manner.
Farhat Ali Mir, one of the two constitutional members of the commission, told reporters on Saturday that the presiding officers were under an obligation to provide duly signed results of their stations to the agents of all contesting candidates, immediately after the counting, thus eliminating chances of results manipulation.
By Saturday evening, polling material had been dispatched to all polling stations — 5,129 in total, of which 826 had been declared the ‘most sensitive’ and 1,209 as ‘sensitive’ stations.