Inauguration marked by ‘political evasion’
25 August 2006
Muzaffarabad: An atmosphere of apparent political evasion prevailed at the inauguration on Friday of Azad Kashmir’s new President Raja Zulqarnain Khan that marked the completion of a controversial electoral process in the earthquake-devastated territory. For different explained or unexplained reasons, some top ruling party and other figures, including the newly-elected prime minister, could not make it to the presidential oath-taking, while the parliamentary opposition boycotted the ceremony in a continuing protest against alleged rigging in the July 11 election. Eye-brows were also raised at the absence of any notable representation from the Pakistan government, though the organisers had expected some ministerial or gubernatorial presence to witness the installation of the man whose election to the office is credited in the state’s political circles to a nod from Islamabad rather than a strong clout in the ruling All- Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference (AJKMC). “They might be busy with the no-confidence motion,” one official said, referring to the opposition move against Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz that the National Assembly is due to debate on Tuesday. State officials said new Azad Kashmir Premier Sardar Attique Ahmad Khan could not be present because he was away in Saudi Arabia to perform Umra, though some political sources said the presidential camp had expected him to return by Thursday and, according to one source, it “particularly felt” his absence. Even outgoing president Sardar Mohammad Anwar, who was elected to the office five years ago immediately after retiring as an army major-general, did not stay in Muzaffarabad to see his successor being sworn in as the 23rd president of the territory since the Azad Kashmir government was set up in October 1947 at the start of the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. A government official said Mr Anwar left Muzaffarabad on Wednesday without waiting for his five-year term to expire at midnight and sent back his personal security and other staff from Islamabad. Veteran Kashmir leader Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan, who has been both president and prime minister of Azad Kashmir and is still an effective leader of the ruling party now headed by Mr Attique, his son, was not at the ceremony because of being abroad for medical treatment. Former prime minister Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan, whom Mr Attique has succeeded, was the most prominent politician at the ceremony. But his presence did not seem to subdue speculations sparked by some absences about the future relationship between the new president and the prime minister. Mr Sikandar and Mr Anwar had faced a period of strained relations between them in the early days of their tenures. Mr Zulqarnain, in his prepared speech, showered praise on the young state premier for his “political insight and consciousness” as well as “political tolerance” that he said would lead to an “unparalleled cooperation” between the ruling and opposition parties. Almost all opposition parties accuse Pakistan authorities of influencing the result of the July Legislative Assembly election, particularly for 10 seats reserved for Kashmiri refugees living in Pakistan, to benefit the AJKMC after a meeting Sardar Qayyum and Sardar Attique held with President Gen Pervez Musharraf. The state government denies the charge as baseless, though the AJKMC calls itself the ideological extension of the Pakistan Muslim League in Kashmir. The opposition in the state Legislative Assembly, led by Sahibzada Ishaq Zafar of the state chapter of the Pakistan People’s Party, stayed away as a matter of boycott. Also absent was former state premier Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry, even after what appeared to be a conciliation-seeking audience with President Gen Musharraf last week and speculation that he may be offered some position to appease him, possibly with the parliamentary Kashmir Committee.