Prime Minister Imran Khan's PTI party has won the legislative elections in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, held Sunday, with a comfortable majority. The election commission announced the results Monday.
These were the first elections in the region after India in 2019 revoked the semi-autonomous status of the parts of Kashmir under its control. The Indian move played heavily in the campaign, with opposition parties accusing the prime minister of trying to do the same to Pakistani Kashmir.
Countering the opposition claims, Khan offered to give Kashmiris the choice to decide their fate.
"We will give the opportunity of [a] referendum to Kashmiris to decide either to want to go with Pakistan or want to be an independent," Khan said while addressing an election rally in Pakistani Kashmir just two days before the polling.
Kashmir-based newspaper columnist Arif Bahar sees Khan's offer of a referendum as a big change in Islamabad's stated position.
"His (Imran Khan’s) statement to give [an] opportunity of [a] referendum indicates that Islamabad is ready to accept Kashmir as an independence state if Kashmiris wish so," Bahar said.
The disputed Himalayan region is divided between India and Pakistan, which have fought several wars over it. Regular skirmishes break out on the Line of Control that acts as the de facto border between the two sides.
The Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir continues to have a semi-autonomous government which includes its own national flag, a national anthem, and a Supreme Court. Its legislative assembly elects the region’s president and prime minister. Pakistan, however, controls foreign affairs as well as the currency and defense for the region.
Historically, the party in power in Islamabad also wins elections in Kashmir.
"It's not unusual that PTI won here. ... Voters are very wise and cast their vote for those who can solve their problems and develop their area more,” said Syed Afaq Hussain, editor of a widely circulated Urdu language newspaper in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir.
Kashmiri nationalists demanding the independence of Kashmir from both India and Pakistan boycotted the polls calling them a "fraud."
Opposition parties accused Khan’s party of rigging but local journalists called the process mostly fair and transparent, barring a few cases of irregularities.
Pakistan’s army, supervising the polls, lost four men when the vehicle they were riding in went off the road and fell into a deep ravine.