Indian election ends, exit polls indicate narrow lead for ruling coalition

NEW DELHI - India's month-long election ended Wednesday, with tens of millions casting ballots in a vote widely expected to usher in a shaky coalition government. <br />

NEW DELHI - India's month-long election ended Wednesday, with tens of millions casting ballots in a vote widely expected to usher in a shaky coalition government. While results were not being announced until Saturday, Indian media exit polls indicated the Congress party-led ruling coalition was narrowly ahead of the opposition Hindu-nationalist alliance.

But with the existing alliances deeply fragile, and both main parties set to launch their final quests for allies once the results were officially announced, little in the political scene was clear.

"We can only be certain about the uncertainty of it," said Amitabh Mattoo, a political analyst. "You will naturally have a coalition," he said. But the final form of that coalition was impossible to predict.

According to the constitution, a new parliament has to be in place by June 2.

Wednesday's polling was the fifth and final phase of the elections in the country of nearly 1.2 billion people, where voting is staggered for logistical and security reasons. More than 100 million voters across nine states were eligible to vote Wednesday, deciding 86 seats in India's 543-seat lower house of parliament.

The scale of the election is staggering, with 714 million voters eligible to cast their ballots at more than 828,000 polling stations scattered from the slopes of the Himalayas to the tropical southern coast.

But there was little to link those voters together. There were no resonant, central issues in the campaign, much of which was dominated by vague promises of prosperity. With neither of the two main parties expected to win an outright majority, many seats will go to a range of regional parties.

Overall turnout was approximately 59 to 60 per cent, the national election commission announced Wednesday, up slightly from 58 per cent in the last national vote, in 2004.

Media reports said the coalition led by the Congress, the left-of-centre party that for years held an iron grip on Indian politics and which has long been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, held a slim lead over the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies.

The news channel CNN-IBN gave the Congress and its allies anywhere from 185 to 205 seats, compared to 165 to 185 for the BJP and its partners. The other major political player - the so-called "Third Front" alliance of communist and regional parties - will win 110 to 130 seats, the station predicted. A party needs 272 seats in order to form a government on its own.

Other TV stations predicted similarly close results.

But poll predictions by Indian TV stations have proven unreliable in the past; most in the 2004 national election turned out to be wrong. On Wednesday, some TV stations were broadcasting the predictions of gambling bookmakers, with one regularly flashing expected results under what it called its Poll-O-Meter.

Security was tight Wednesday across north India, where more than 68,000 paramilitary soldiers were deployed, and in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir, where separatists have called for a boycott of the polls.

Violent protests erupted in the Kashmiri village of Seelu after rock-throwing villagers said soldiers had beaten locals for not voting. Troops fired into the air to disperse the crowds. One polling official was injured when he was hit by a rock and a police vehicle was burned, said B. Srinivas, a top police officer in the state.

There were also protests at four other polling stations and police detained at least seven people, Srinivas said.

At least four policemen were injured Tuesday night when anti-election protesters hurled rocks and set fire to a police vehicle in Baramulla, a town 55 kilometres north of Srinagar, the main city in Kashmir.

Suspected rebels also lobbed two grenades at polling booths the previous night, the officer said.

In the eastern state of West Bengal, one person died in a bomb attack that police suspect was tied to the elections, said senior police official Raj Kanojia.

Tens of thousands of security personnel fanned across the West Bengal districts that were voting to prevent a repeat of the clashes that marred the last round of polls in the state.

The only southern state to vote Wednesday was Tamil Nadu, which had 39 seats up for grabs . The state's crucial election issue has been the plight of Tamil civilians caught in the brutal Sri Lankan war, with the leading candidates vowing various degrees of support.

 
 
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