Polling amid shutdown call, Kashmir sees abysmally low voter turnout of 11%

Polling amid shutdown call, Kashmir sees abysmally low voter turnout of 11%

Ishfaq Naseem,

The Kashmir Valley witnessed an abysmally low voter turnout of close to 12 percent in the first phase of the municipal elections. The polls on Monday were held in six districts in the region amid a complete shutdown, observed in response to the call of separatists to boycott the urban local body elections, the first to be held in the state in 13 years.

Polling booths were deserted in most parts of Kashmir, besides Kupwara district, where the percentage of votes cast was in double digits. Voters chose to boycott the elections and observed a shutdown called by the Joint Resistance Leadership, a conglomerate of various separatist organisations in the state.

Voter turnout remained low since polling began at 7 am and did not pick up over the day. Given the low turnout, the Chief Electoral Officer decided to keep the booths open for two additional hours, as a result of which voting continued for nine hours in the 57 wards in the Valley.

By 1 pm, the four municipal wards of Anantnag in Kashmir recorded a polling percentage of 6.1 percent, while it was only 12 percent at a single polling station in Budgam. The turnout at the 16 wards of Bandipora was 2.5 percent, 3.7 percent in the 15 wards of Baramulla, 26.3 percent in the 18 wards of Kupwara and 3 percent in the three wards of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation.

Two hours later, the polling percentage was 6.8 percent, 12.9 percent, 3 percent, 4.5 percent, 29.8 percent and 5.9 percent in the districts of Anantnag, Budgam, Bandipora, Baramulla, Kupwara and Srinagar, respectively. When voting ended at 4 pm, the total count was 11 percent; in the districts of Anantnag, Budgam, Bandipora , Baramulla, Kupwara and Srinagar, it was 7.3 percent, 17 percent, 3.4 percent, 5.1 percent, 32.3 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively.

Lack of candidates, lacklustre campaigning

The run-up to the elections was marked by lack of campaigning, as people remained unaware about the candidates contesting the local body polls, and political parties being unable to find nominees to field for several seats. In many wards, neither the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor the Congress could field candidates, even though no militant attacks were reported in these regions for the past few years. Many of the candidates also shifted from their homes to government accommodations in Srinagar city.

In the whole of Budgam district in Kashmir, polling was held only at one booth as candidates had either been elected unopposed, or election authorities did not receive the nominations before the deadline to submit the papers.

In Budgam, 33 wards were to go for the polls, but only 26 candidates had filed their nomination papers, of whom 24 were declared as elected unopposed. This was the one ward where both the BJP and Congress had fielded candidates for the civic polls.

Additional Deputy Commissioner (Budgam) Khurshid Ahmad Sanai said that only one polling station was set up in the entire district. “The elections were held only at ward no. 5 in Budgam municipality. We had set up only one polling station, and the total number of allotted votes was 642. As per the Election Commission of India’s guidelines, there has to be one polling station for 1,200 voters,” he said.

“The elections were to be held for three municipal committees of Budgam, Chadoora and Srinagar, and there were 13 wards each for Budgam and Chadoora and seven for Khansaheb. There were three vacant wards in Budgam and five in Chadoora, while all seven candidates were declared as elected unopposed from Khansaheb,” he added.

Decent voter turnout in Kupwara

However, in the border district of Kupwara, the polling percentage was relatively higher. In the first three hours of voting in Kupwara, over 1,000 votes were cast at 18 wards, where 47 candidates were in the electoral fray. Deputy Commissioner (Kupwara) Khalid Jehangir said “a good percentage of people came to cast their votes in the district”.

In the urban local body elections, while the BJP could not find candidates for a number of wards, it nevertheless made inroads in Kashmir for the first time in the electoral history of the state. Party spokesperson Altaf Thakur said that their 80 candidates were elected unopposed in Kashmir.

Both major regional parties — the Peoples Democratic Party and the National Conference — boycotted the polls in protest against the central government’s move to “revoke Article 35A of Indian Constitution, which bars outsiders from owning properties in Kashmir, among other provisions. The two parties have sought clarification from the Centre on its stand on Article 35A.

Moreover, despite the low voter turnout and lack of candidates, Jammu and Kashmir Congress vice president GN Monga accused the BJP of rigging the elections. He said the saffron party was using the “official machinery” to mobilise voters and was “openly using muscle and money power to influence the elections”. “Even people who are not voters were made to cast ballots against our candidates in Anantnag today,” he claimed, adding that the Congress had won over 100 wards uncontested in Kashmir, so far.