Near-total boycott of elections, except by polling staff keen on one month’s salary bonus
Srinagar: Except in Uri, Kashmiri voters overwhelmingly rejected the third phase of municipal elections held on Saturday, with almost 97 percent of the electorate staying away from polling booths.
A mere 3.5 percent voter turnout was recorded overall in Kashmir’s three districts of Srinagar, Anantnag, and Baramulla – with the turnout being 1.8% in Srinagar – but in the “garrison town” of Uri, more than 75 percent of the electorate cast their vote.
In contrast to this minuscule turnout, elections in Jammu’s Samba district drew 81 percent of the electorate to polling stations, raising the aggregate poll turnout in the entire state to 16.4 percent.
The third phase of polling was scheduled on Saturday in three Kashmir districts where more than 240 fortified polling stations were set up. The voting time began before sunrise at 6am and ended 10 hours later at 4pm. In elections for 13 wards of the Uri municipal committee, 31 candidates were in the fray. More than 75 percent of the 3,552 electorate turned up to cast their vote. Uri town, known for its huge military presence as it falls along the Line of Control, had in recent years seen a steep increase in clashes between Indian and Pakistani troops, with exchange of gunfire and mortar shelling regularly taking place.
In Srinagar, where elections were conducted for 20 of the 74 wards of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, more than 98 percent people stayed away from the electoral exercise. Only 1.8 percent voters out of the 1,53,091 cast their vote, even though there were a total of 75 contestants in the fray. Several of the highly secured 220 ballot centers in the city were empty, the polling staff basking in the sun throughout the day.
The state election office said that re-poll in Srinagar’s Bachidarwaza (Ward 41) would be held due to non-replacement of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) on time. The re-poll would be conducted in the final phase of the elections on October 16.
In Anantnag, where elections were conducted for seven wards of Mattan Municipal Committee, just 3.2 percent voters of the above 4,800 electorate turned up. The voter turnout was inclusive of a single ward of Anantnag Municipal Committee where re-poll was ordered after the Electronic Voter Machine (EVM) malfunctioned during second phase of polls on October 10.
In Samba district, where elections were conducted for four municipal bodies, the turnout at the end of the day stood at 81.4 percent. The elections were held for 56 wards against which 242 candidates were in fray.
The ongoing four-phase elections are being held amid boycott by the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The boycott by the region’s two main political parties has marred the credibility of the electoral exercise as more than 370 of 598 wards in Kashmir are having no contest.
No candidate came forward in above 170 wards while in more than 200 wards there was only a single nomination filed. The BJP has used the situation to its advantage, fielding several candidates and having them declared winners unopposed in a region where the party is considered as a pariah. The BJP hasn’t won a single assembly or parliamentary election in Kashmir’s electoral history. To helm more than five municipalities, especially in militancy-hotbed south Kashmir, is quite a novelty for both the party and the people.
The 17 wards of Shopian’s municipal committee now have eleven BJP members – all Kashmiri Pandits – including four women. They were brought to the Valley and sent back after completing formalities of filing nomination papers. In an almost identical case, 21 wards of Sopore municipal body have eight BJP members who won unopposed, the remaining wards staying vacant. Two municipalities, of Khrew and Frisal, have drawn a blank as no candidate filed papers for the contest.
Coupled with the election boycott called by the Joint Resistance Leadership, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo had explicitly asked candidates to bring nomination form “along with shroud”. Spooked by the threat, many candidates withdrew their nominations from the contest.
Subsequently, election officers kept names of contestants in confidentiality, giving voters no clue about them. The chief election officer also ordered the polling to start before sunrise, despite the chill in the air, to avoid prying eyes including journalists to watch over voters as well as contestants.
Amid these secrecy-shrouded elections, the state government employees made windfall gains as the government announced one month’s extra salary to ensure their presence at polling booths. Many employees with whom Kashmir Reader talked to said that they “willingly” joined election duty to claim the one-month additional salary. The looming fear, however, made the government ferry them to polling stations in the darkness of night, and amid heavy presence of government forces. On Friday night, a convoy of passenger buses hired for ferrying polling staff and election paraphernalia blocked traffic on several downtown roads.
A senior official, pleading anonymity, said employees were eagerly asking for inclusion in the election duty roster to earn the bonus. “I cancelled my name from election duty because of some domestic problem but many of my colleagues were surprised at my decision,” said an employee from Srinagar, adding, “Many insisted I recommend their names for the duty.”