"Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people." - Harry Emerson Fosdick The upcoming elections in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) will have an added significance this time, because it will surely be a test for the democratic institutions in the country. A massive earthquake that hit the area in 2005 created immense hardships for the people and mounted a serious challenge to the federal government that has since been engaged in rehabilitation work. All major political parties have now camped in AJK with each and every one of them dishing out fancy promises to the people - most of which are impossible to fulfil, while some cannot be implemented due to lack of resources. However, this does not mean that the government is not concentrating on developmental projects, and money seems to be freely flowing into various constituencies creating a small bonanza for the people living in these areas. At the same time, the government and the opposition parties must remember that the world is focusing on the outcome of these elections. And it will be in the interest of democracy, Kashmiris and the federal government if the elections are held in a free and fair manner. Both sides must also accept the results gracefully and avoid levelling baseless charges of rigging against each other, if the results are not in their favour. Surely, these elections will reiterate the desire and aspirations of the people, who are living under oppression of the Indian forces, to intensify their efforts to achieve their goal through the application of the right of self-determination. More so, the AJK elections on June 26 will help persuade the international community to increase pressure on New Delhi to allow the people in Indian held Kashmir (IHK) to choose their future through a democratic process. Coming back to the AJK elections. The government has opened its coffers and the federal ministers and, more recently, the Prime Minister have been visiting the area and initiating developmental projects that will undoubtedly benefit the people. However, they should ensure that the government largesse is not utilised to favour the candidates, who belong to the ruling party. During the previous elections, it was also observed that massive postings and transfers of officials who could exercise influence on the results were done without taking into account any cut-out date. Likewise, no effort was made to ensure that none of the candidates participating in the elections were hit by Article 62 or 63 of the Constitution, which lays down the eligibility of a candidate. Further, in the last general elections more than thirty million votes, which did not figure in the voters list available with the Election Commission, has been cast. Therefore, it has become imperative that all these weaknesses that were detected after the last elections are not repeated in the present elections. The main burden, however, remains with the federal government that it must tread carefully and ensure that a peaceful atmosphere is provided on the polling day. Free and fair elections in Azad Kashmir will, indeed, strengthen the Pakistani government, who will have a clear advantage over the Indians at international forums where it will become possible for it to vigorously agitate and highlight the plight of the people in IHK. Islamabad will be well within its rights, if it keeps raising the Kashmir issue at forums like the UN and OIC till the time New Delhi accepts the ground realities and move towards resolving the dispute, which has haunted both Pakistan and India for over 60 years. One hopes that the Government of Pakistan will convert the opportunity that will be provided to them by elections in AJK not only to highlight the problems that are being faced by the Kashmiri people now under the occupation forces, but will also provide Islamabad an opportunity to exert some moral and diplomatic pressure on New Delhi so that some meaningful progress is made on the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan may also try to convince the US to use its clout with Indian and force it to move towards a negotiated settlement on the Kashmir issue. This is the only way for both the neighbouring states to move forward on the path to progress and prosperity. Failure by the Indians to reciprocate Pakistan's good intentions for the settlement of all outstanding issues will lead to continued tension and turmoil in the South Asian region. This is a proposition that is not in the interest of India or Pakistan as well as the international community. Therefore, the democratic dispensation in AJK can become a harbinger of change in the IHK as well, giving new impetus to the struggle that is being made by the Kashmiri people to throw off the Indian yoke that has created not only economic hardship for the people in the area, but they have also sacrificed nearly 100,000 people to achieve their ultimate goal of freedom from the Indian Army. n The writer is a freelance columnist. Email: zarnatta@hotmail.com