Low voter turnout in Kashmir Civic Polls the beginning of a downward slide for electoral process?

Unable to mobilise electoral support, Kashmir’s civic poll candidates on Monday managed to draw a dismal 8.3 per cent turnout during the first leg of the elections in the region.

“It wasn’t even a trickle,” remarked an Independent candidate who was in fray for the civic polls in north Kashmir’s Baramulla. The ward he was contesting from had a total of 1,006 votes. His wife, his polling agent and the candidate himself made up the only three votes that were cast on Monday.

Unable to mobilise electoral support, Kashmir’s civic poll candidates on Monday managed to draw an abysmal 8.3 per cent turnout during the first leg of the civic polls in the region. Only 7,057 voters of the 84,692 eligible ones turned up to vote in the 83 wards that went to polls.

Srinagar recorded 6.2 per cent polling; Baramulla 5.1 per cent; Bugam 17 per cent; Bandipora 3.4 per cent; Anantnag 7.3 percent and Kupwara 32.30 per cent. The marginal increase in voter turnout in Kupwara can be attributed to People’s Conference led by Sajjad Lone who is an ally of the Bharatiya Jananta Party (BJP).

In Kashmir region, the elections were held for Kupwara municipal committee (in 11 wards out of 13), Handwara municipal committee (in 7 wards out of 13), Bandipora (in 16 wards out of 17), Baramulla (in 15 wards out of 21), Srinagar (three wards — Humhama, Bemina and Bagh-e-Mehtab), Budgam (one out of 13 wards) and Kokernag (four out of 13 wards).

Most of the polling station in these districts were classified as ‘hyper sensitive’ by the authorities.

The elections — held for the municipal wards — were already seen by many as a failed attempt to restore electoral process in the restive region. However, one question that this low turnout has brought to fore is why aren’t the people in Kashmir coming out to vote?

Rejection of Poll Process
During the 2014 Assembly elections, Jammu and Kashmir saw a staggering 76 per cent voting, highest in 25 years. After the results, PM Narendra Modi declared, “Democracy has won in J&K.” However, in Kashmir region, voter turnout (57.1 per cent) was still much less compared to the entire state. While 2014’s voter turnout was considered healthy, every electoral process in the region since 2014 has only witnessed a downhill slide.

The rise in militancy in south Kashmir, militant threats to candidates in the fray, boycott calls from the separatists and the non-participation of the National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have together made sure that most of the voters in the region don’t exercise their franchise.

However, much of what is being seen during the current civic polls in the region is a reflection of the change in Kashmir’s political landscape after the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. The last time people in Kashmir turned up to vote in an election was for during the bypolls for the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency held in April 2017, ten months after Wani’s death. Only 7 per cent of the total electorate cast their votes. Eight people were killed in the violence that ensued during the polls after the separatists had given a call to boycott the elections. The government decided for a repolling in 38 polling stations that were marred with violence. A month later, out of the 34,169 voters, just 709 people — a mere 2 per cent — voted in the repolling, making it the lowest percentage in the state’s history.

The embarrassed state government, then headed by Mehbooba Mufti, later on called for the cancellation of the other bypoll in Anantnag, a seat she had vacated in June 2016 to become the chief minister. It’s been more than two years now and Anantnag has become the longest delayed bypoll in the country since 1996, Election Commission data shows.

A Faceless Election?
This first leg of local body elections was also seen as some sort of a ‘secret’ poll in the valley. After the militants’ threats became rampant and candidates started taking back their nomination papers, there was hardly any campaigning and no rallies in many parts of the valley. The names of candidates who had filed nomination papers or their political affiliations were also not being disclosed.

The state election commission and contesting parties, however, defended this ‘secrecy’, citing threats by militants to the candidates.

The other important development that has brought down the voter turnout to such a low is the lack of contestants. Out of 598 wards in the Valley, there are 244 wards where candidates have been declared winners uncontested, implying that these wards have only a single contestant and won’t go to polls, thus bringing down the voter turnout.

Besides, there are at least 167 wards where not a single candidate is contesting elections. Both these categories of wards constitute more than 63% of total municipal segments across Kashmir and won’t be witnessing an election at all.

Of the 167 wards with no candidate in fray, 126 wards fall in 20 municipal bodies across the restive south Kashmir, spread over four districts and comprising half of the total wards across Kashmir. For example, Khrew in Pampore has 17 wards but zero candidates. Same goes for Frisal in Anantnag, which has 13 wards but no candidates. The other 73 wards in different parts of south Kashmir have just a single nominee.

Militant Threats & Article 35A
At least 45 candidates have withdrawn their nominations amid threats from militant groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen along with the killing of two political workers last week in Srinagar. With these looming threats, the candidates have been unable to do any public campaigning and have been kept in well-guarded hotels away from their homes amid threats from the militants.

“The whole exercise of conducting polls has turned out to be a crude joke. In most of the wards people simply don’t know who is contesting as contestants are putting up in guarded hotels within Srinagar and other areas. They have not even gone into their areas to seek votes. Even the names of the candidates were never released by the Election Commission. Is this what their idea of democracy is?” National Conference’s Provincial Spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar said, questioning the validity of the poll process.

Adding fuel to this is the anger amongst the people about the abrogation of Article 35A which empowers the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature to define “permanent residents” and provides them with special rights and privileges. It also bars non-state subjects from purchasing property and having government jobs in the disputed region.

The two main regional parties, NC and PDP have already boycotted the election citing that they want to “safeguard this exclusive citizenship law”, currently being challenged in the Supreme Court.

Kashmiris fear a repeal of the law by the Supreme Court could end up changing demographics in the Muslim-majority state. This is where the separatists’ call for an election boycott has further hampered the people from voting. Hearings in the case, which has triggered widespread protests in Kashmir earlier this year, have been postponed for two months in view of the current elections.