Brutal heat wave and threats of violence mar India elections

A BRUTAL heat wave sweeping much of India, together with threats of violence from communist guerillas, marred the second round of voting yesterday in the country’s month-long election, keeping millions away from the polls.

Turnout, initially high as voters headed to polling stations early, slowed to a trickle as summertime temperatures touched 44 degrees Celsius. The intense heat caused the death of one election official and hospitalisation 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 — a situation 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.

Yesterday’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, a state spokesman 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%.

In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, turnout was just 43%. Much of this was attributed to the debut foray into politics by the region’s biggest film star. Millions have turned out for Chiranjeevi’s rallies that have resembled frenzied rock concerts. Chiranjeevi, a superstar of regional language Telugu films, uses just one name.

Voting is to be completed on May 13 and the results are expected on May 16.

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