By Farooq Sulehria
Monday, June 20, 2011
On June 26, the electorate in Azad Jammu and Kashmir will elect a new Legislative Assembly. In the 49-member house, the voters elect 41 members, and the remaining eight seats reserved for women and technocrats are elected by the house. Unlike previous general elections, this one is not an electoral duel between the traditional rivals, the Muslim Conference and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The Muslim League (Nawaz), which recently launched its Kashmir chapter consisting mainly of Muslim Conference dissidents, has converted the electoral fray into a three-way fight.
However, the likely outcome is not hard to guess. Ever since 1970, when the people of Azad Jammu and Kashmir were granted the right to vote on the basis of adult franchise, the cabinet in Muzaffarabad has been a mirror image of the ruling clique in Islamabad. Since the first general elections in Azad Kashmir were held before Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arrived at the helm in Islamabad, the GHQ was able to install its traditional puppet, the Muslim Conference, as the “government.” However, in 1975, Bhutto ensured a PPP government in Muzaffarabad. His nemesis, Gen Zia, dissolved Azad Kashmir’s Legislative Assembly the way he torpedoed Pakistan’s elected parliament in 1977.
It is ironic that Pakistani rulers, crying hoarse since 1947 for Kashmiris’ right to self-determination, denied the part of Kashmir under Pakistan’s control even the right to elect its Legislative Assembly until 1970. In 1977 they snatched back even this symbolic right. Hence, to avoid an embarrassing situation, in 1985 onwards electoral process in Azad Jammu and Kashmir has gone on uninterrupted. Even when Gen Musharraf liquidated parliament in 1999, he did not tinker with the legislature in Muzaffarabad.
However, both military dictators and elected civilian governments make sure that Muzaffarabad mirrors Islamabad when it comes to the government. Understandably, in 1985 when the dictator put in place a Muslim League cabinet in Islamabad, a Muslim Conference government was inevitable in Muzaffarabad. Sardar Qayyum, the controversial First Mujahid, was sworn in by the khakis as president, remuneration for his long-time services, while Sardar Sikander Hayat was rewarded with the job of prime minister. However, the Muslim Conference ministry was not punished in 1988 by Gen Zia when he dismissed the Junejo cabinet and the parliament he had himself carefully cobbled together. When the next elections were held in Azad Kashmir in 1990, Benazir Bhutto was ruling in Islamabad. Not unexpectedly, the PPP’s Kashmir chapter was able to form the government in Muzaffarabad. Mumtaz Rathore became prime minister. But he was not merely unlucky, he proved defiant too. When Benazir Bhutto was dethroned by the khakis in 1990, Rathore ordered a ceremonial guard of honour when he received Benazir Bhutto in Muzaffarabad. He did not stay long in power. After nine months, Rathore had to dissolve the Legislative Assembly and a fresh election paved the way for the return of the duo of Sardar Qayyum and Sardar Sikander. Fresh elections were held when Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League was firmly in control in Islamabad.
In 1996, Benazir Bhutto was back in power in Islamabad. Hence, elections in Azad Jammu and Kashmir produced a PPP ministry. Octogenarian Sardar Ibrahim became president and Barrister Sultan Mehmoud was appointed prime minister. In 2001 and 2006, the 12 Division was supposed to cobble together the government in Muzaffarabad. Hence, the Muslim Conference conveniently emerged victorious in both these general elections. In 2001, the Sardar-Qayyum-Sardar Sikander duo enjoyed its traditional privileges. In 2006 the old duo was sent on forced retirement. However, to ensure continuity Sardar Qayyum’s son, Sardar Attique, was appointed prime minister and a retired general, Raja Zulqarnain, became president.
Meantime, Zardari replaced Musharraf’s as events took a dramatic turn in Pakistan. Though President Zardari, in spite of all his skills, was unable to bring down the Muslim Conference, three prime ministers faced a vote of no confidence in last three years. The Muslim Conference’s Farooq Haider, in collaboration with the PPP, engineered a coup and Sardar Attique was out in 2009. Sardar Yakub was sworn in as prime minister. Only nine months later, Sardar Attique and Farooq Haider joined hands to vote out Sardar Yakub. Finally, Farooq Haider, a protege of Sardar Sikander Hayat, was in the saddle. But before long, Sardar Attique was able to engineer yet another vote of no-confidence and was himself back at the prime minister’s secretariat. These petty intrigues generated such bad blood that Sikander’s faction split with the Muslim Conference and launched the Kashmir chapter of Nawaz League.
Interestingly, as in Indian-held Kashmir, the Jamaat-e-Islami has never managed to receive a sizeable number of seats in the Muzaffarabad legislature. It hardly gets into the Legislative Assembly, if at all. Most likely, a coalition of the Muslim Conference and PPP will form the next government. The Nawaz League will have to wait for now until a favourable change in Islamabad. The electoral show will go on.
Farooq Sulehria is a London-based independent journalist.