July 12, 2006

Quake-hit Pakistani Kashmiris shun Islamist parties

By Kamran Haider

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani Kashmiris
shunned hard-line Islamist parties in legislative assembly
elections despite their prominent role in reconstruction after
last October's earthquake, results on Wednesday showed .

Out of 37 declared results in the 41-member assembly, a
government backed party won 19, while the rest went to other
political parties and independents.

Despite problems of joblessness, high property prices, slow
construction and water and sanitation issues in the wake of the
quake, Tuesday's vote appeared to have gone in favor of tried
and trusted candidates.

"Our choice of candidates is limited. So you see the same
old faces. The Islamists failed because people are apprehensive
about their hard-line views," said shopkeeper Naeem Qureshi.

The earthquake killed 73,000 people and destroyed the homes
of more than three million people in Kashmir and North West
Frontier Province.

The Islamists, who back militant groups fighting Indian
rule on the other side of the ceasefire line dividing Kashmir,
have not traditionally done well in elections in the region.

But there had been speculation that dissatisfaction with
the government and their active role in helping victims of the
quake might strengthen support for them. In the event, the
religious alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, fielded 33
candidates in the elections and all of them lost.

In one constituency, the MMA candidate only scored 436
votes, while the winner racked up over 7,000.

Azad Kashmir, or Free Kashmir, as Pakistan calls its part
of a land divided with India, has always been regarded as a
puppet of Islamabad, despite having the trappings of
independence, with a president, a prime minister and its own

The All Pakistan Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference,
supported by the government, won 19 of the seats.

Campaigning had been somber, and on Tuesday voters filed
through prefabricated polling centers, tents and buildings
scarred by the earthquake.

Many residents are homeless and jobless and want the
reconstruction process speeded up. But the death of civil
servants, destroyed infrastructure and loss of bureaucratic
records has complicated the task.

Ishaq Zafar, the President of Pakistan Peoples Party of
former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who is in self-exile, said
that there had been some rigging at polling stations outside
Muzaffarabad, the regional capital.

"The results are unclear as there is no clear majority for
any party and we could have a hung parliament and a coalition
government," he said.