Coalition Government Likely in Jammu and Kashmir

Omar Abdullah, head of the National Conference party, waves to supporters after his party led in elections in Jammu and Kashmir. The National Conference party is expected to ally with the Congress party to create a ruling coalition government in the troubled region.
Omar Abdullah, head of the National Conference party, waves to supporters after his party led in elections in Jammu and Kashmir. The National Conference party is expected to ally with the Congress party to create a ruling coalition government in the troubled region. (By Mukhtar Khan -- Associated Press)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 29, 2008

NEW DELHI, Dec. 28 -- No clear winner emerged in elections in India's troubled Jammu and Kashmir region, according to results released Sunday, but a new coalition led by the regional National Conference party was likely to assume power in the assembly.

The election was held in the shadow of a tense standoff between India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed countries that have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.

No single party gained enough seats to form a government on its own, but the National Conference is expected to ally with the Congress party. The former, which was in the opposition for the past six years, won in 28 out of 87 constituencies. The Congress party won in 17.

The leader of the National Conference, Omar Abdullah, told reporters his party was ready to form a government with the "like-minded Congress party." The two parties have traditionally been allies.

"People have voted for a coalition government. We are the only two in a position to provide a stable government," Abdullah told television reporters in Srinagar, the region's summer capital. The two parties were engaged in back-channel talks late Sunday.

The staggered, seven-phased polls, held amid heavy security, witnessed an unexpectedly high voter turnout of 61.5 percent despite a boycott call by separatists who oppose Indian rule in Kashmir. In the last election, in 2002, voter turnout was about 43 percent.

"I think the large turnout in Kashmir is a vote for democracy and national integration. We are all happy at the turnout, and who wins or loses is a secondary issue," said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who heads India's Congress-ruled government.

Five of the voting phases were after the deadly attacks in Mumbai last month by 10 gunmen who besieged the city for three days, killing more than 170 people, including six Americans, and injuring more than 230 people.

India blamed a Pakistan-based Islamist group, Lashkar-i-Taiba for the attacks and demanded that the Pakistani government crack down on the group's leaders. Lashkar has been engaged in a violent insurgency in Kashmir for more than a decade. The fallout from the Mumbai attacks and the ensuing war of words between India and Pakistan soured a four-year peace dialogue.

"Both the mainstream Kashmiri parties campaigned on the platform of peace between India and Pakistan and advocated increased cross-border cooperation and connectivity," said Noor Ahmad Baba, professor of political science at Kashmir University. He said the election campaign began amid euphoric optimism after relations had improved between India and Pakistan, marked by the opening of a new overland trade route in October and a decline in violence in the Kashmir Valley.

In the past 20 years, a violent separatist insurgency, with many groups trained and financed by Islamist groups in Pakistan, has left more than 68,000 people dead in Kashmir. But police officials said the number of violent incidents this year fell by about 40 percent.

Ahead of the elections, Indian forces jailed and detained many Kashmiri separatists who had urged the boycott. Separatist leaders had said India would use the polls to legitimize its rule. Police continued to conduct search-and-raid campaigns throughout the polls and deployed thousands to guard against election violence.

Many political observers expressed surprise that so many people turned out for the elections but said the voters had local development issues in mind.

"The common man in Kashmir made a very fine distinction between the long-term political aspirations and the immediate, day-to-day problems of roads, electricity, education and employment. This turnout in the election does not mean that they have forgotten or ignored the larger issues about the status of Kashmir," Baba said. "Both the Kashmiri parties told the people that the larger issues will be addressed later and separately."

In the summer, Muslims in Kashmir protested a local government decision to transfer 100 acres of forestland to a trust that runs an ancient Hindu shrine. About 50 protesters were killed by police fire. The transfer was revoked.

"Let us not forget that those who voted in the elections are the same people who were demonstrating on the streets a few months ago," Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the People's Democratic Party said at a news conference. The party, in power for the past six years, won in 21 constituencies. "This election means we have to address both the issues alongside -- that of good governance and to find a solution to Kashmir's problem."


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