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Heat, threats of violence mar Indian elections

By
  • Associated Press
April 23, 2009

PATNA, India (AP) — A brutal heat wave, together with threats of violence from communist guerrillas, kept millions away from the polls Thursday in India's monthlong election.

The initially high turnout slowed to a trickle as summertime temperatures reached 111 degrees Fahrenheit (44 Celsius.) The intense heat caused the death of one election official and hospitalization of another in the eastern state of Orissa, said Prabhakar Sahu, a spokesman for the election commission.

"The heat wave is so intense how can one go out?" said Suresh Sharma, an engineer from the northern city of Allahabad. "I wanted to cast my vote, but I fear if I go I may fall ill."

The low numbers were expected to further confuse an election already dominated by a range of regional and caste-based parties and without any dominant central issues.

Polls indicate neither the Congress party, which leads the governing coalition, nor the main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, will win enough seats in the 543-seat lower house of Parliament to rule on their own.

That means the election will likely leave India with a shaky coalition government, giving the next prime minister little time to deal with a growing number of challenges.

Those problems include the threat of violence posed by Maoist rebels, who have threatened to kill citizens who participate in the election, which they dismiss as a "fake exercise."

Voting was relatively peaceful after attacks that left at least 17 dead marred last week's vote, but the threat was enough to deter many — particularly after rebels bombed a jeep carrying election officials.

Thursday's attack on poll officials in Jharkhand state, a stronghold of the communist guerrillas who have fought for decades for the rights of the poor, wounded a magistrate and a police officer, state spokesman S.P. Pradhan said. The attackers then fled.

Separately, nearly 20 suspected rebels burned four jeeps loaded with voting machines and other election materials outside a polling station in the state, said police superintendent Navin Kumar Singh.

Many in the state said the threats persuaded them not to vote.

"I don't want to annoy them. They can harm me and my business," said Anil Agarwal, a businessman in the town of Giridh. Officials said turnout in Jharkhand was about 50 percent, and only 45 percent in the neighboring state of Bihar.

In Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, turnout was just 43 percent, said Anuj Kumar Bishnoi, the chief electoral officer.

The exception was the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, where turnout was 65 percent. Much of this was attributed to the political debut by Chiranjeevi, a superstar of Telugu-language films who uses just one name.

"I am inspired by the presence of Chiranjeevi. I want him and his party to win," said Venkateswara Rao, a businessman, who decided to vote for the first time to support the actor.

Millions have turned out for Chiranjeevi's rallies that have resembled frenzied rock concerts.

Voting will be completed on May 13. The results are expected on May 16. With more than 700 million voters, India normally holds staggered elections for logistic and security reasons.

Still, not everyone was deterred by the scorching sun.

"Heat or no heat, (voting) is my right and I should exercise it," said 70 year-old Mohammed Fasiullah, a retired teacher from the northern town of Srawasti. "In April one expects a heat wave. What's strange about this?"

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Associated Press writers Wasbir Hussain in Gauhati and Omer Farooq in Hyderabad contributed to this report.

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