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India's First Round of Polls Close, 11 Dead - 2004-04-20


In India, polls have closed at the end of the first of five days of voting in a national parliamentary election in the world's largest democracy. Voting was marred by violence in some parts of the country, with at least 15 people reported killed.

India's election commission says voter turnout hovered between an average of 50 and 55 percent in the 16 states and territories that held elections Tuesday, but in India-controlled Kashmir, just 40 percent of voters participated.

Polls in Kashmir were also marred by violence, with gunfire and grenade attacks on at least 11 polling stations. Maoist rebels in the east of the country also staged attacks on voting booths. Both regions suffer from separatist conflicts.

In the eastern state of Jharkand, a car carrying Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha was pelted with stones. He was not injured in the incident. "I think the intention was to provoke the security people traveling with me into firing," said Mr. Sinha.

Tuesday marked the first of five days of voting to be held across India, ending May 10. India is the world's largest democracy, with 675 million eligible voters entitled to cast ballots in 70,000 polling stations across the country.

At stake are seats in India's 543 member parliament. The poll is largely a contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the opposition Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi.

Officials blamed the relatively low voter turnout on hot weather, and the fact that few state legislatures are also facing re-election.

In the state of Gujarat, however, members of the Muslim minority said they would stay away from polling stations, for fear of violence.

More than 1000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in Gujarat in months of riots in 2002. Kasam Bai, 62, is rebuilding his house in a Muslim enclave, despite losing 19 family members in the violence. However, he said that few from the neighborhood, across the street from a polling station, would vote.

He added that people are scared they might get attacked again and that they are not interested in casting votes "in a place that has proven to be so terrible for us."

In other areas of the city, Hindu voters said they are most concerned about problems of unemployment.

The BJP has headed India's ruling coalition for the past five years. Prime Minister Vajpayee called the election six months early on the strength of India's booming economy and a thaw in relations with neighboring Pakistan.

Opinion polls suggest that the BJP will win the ballot, but without enough seats to gain control of parliament, which would force the party to form a coalition government.

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