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Third time, Kashmir rejects boycott call (Roundup)

National,Politics, Sun, 30 Nov 2008 IANS

Kupwara/Srinagar, Nov 30 (IANS) The third phase of Jammu and Kashmir's staggered elections ended peacefully Sunday with some 62 percent of voters exercising their franchise to elect a new government, again defying Muslim separatists' calls for poll boycott.


Polling Sunday was confined to the Kashmir Valley's Kupwara district, which has been a hotbed of militancy. The tens of thousands who braved the chilly weather to pour out of their homes included a 98-year-old woman, who said she was confident that her vote will help usher in change.



The huge turnout, political activists admitted, appeared to be another sign of people's longing for peace.



Polling started at 8 a.m. on a dull note because of the chill but picked up rapidly as the day advanced, Kashmir divisional commissioner Masood Samoon told reporters.



By close of the day, at least 62 percent of 335,927 electorate had voted in the five constituencies -- Kupwara, Langate, Lolab, Karnah and Handwara -- in north Kashmir, Samoon said.



Karnah's turnout was a whopping 79 percent. The voting percentage in Lolab was 64, in Kupwara over 60 and in Handwara 59 percent.



At least 54 percent voting was recorded in Langate. Samoon said he was yet to get information from about 20 polling booths in the district, which lies along the Pakistan border.



Sunday's impressive voter turnout come after the equally encouraging 64 and 65 percent turnout in the first and second rounds of the seven-phased elections.



Issues of better roads, healthcare, education, water and electricity supplies mainly drove the voters to the polling booths, random interviews with men and women revealed.



Among the oldest voters was the 98-year-old Fazi, who patiently stood in queue at a polling station in Handwara constituency although she could barely stand.



'There are many problems like unemployment, bad roads and poor electricity supply. I am voting for someone who will change things (for the better),' said Fazi.



Her daughter in law Mehbooba said that the family had difficulty in persuading Fazi not to come out in the chill.



'She insisted she must vote. We wanted her to wait till the weather warms up. But she wouldn't listen,' she said.



Added Ashiq Hussain, 23, a shopkeeper in Kupwara: 'It is time to vote, a boycott will only damage our cause for development.'



But separatist leaders alleged that the elections weren't free and fair.



'This is a farce enacted by converting voting areas into cantonments,' said separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani, pointing towards heavy security deployment.



The the elections progressed without any interruption barring one single street protest.



That protest took place in Trehgam village of Kupwara, where the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) used batons to disperse the crowds shouting pro-freedom slogans, a police officer said.



With three more phases to go before the elections end Dec 24, it is yet to be seen if the trend of heavy voting persists.



The main contestants in the state - which has been without an elected government since July 11 - are the Congress, the National Conference, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).



But Sunday's electoral battle aroused keen interest because slain separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone's daughter Shabnum was an independent in Kupwara constituency.



Shabnum's two brothers Bilal and Sajad Lone -- also separatist leaders -- however vociferously campaigned for a boycott.



Shabnum's father had immense goodwill and support in the area and this was likely to come handy for her, said Bashir Manzar, editor of an English daily.



Her main rival was Mir Saifullah of the National Conference, who is seeking re-election from the constituency. Seventy-one candidates were in the fray in the five constituencies Sunday.


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