Five days after the PDP said it would not contest the municipal polls in Jammu and Kashmir, the Chief Electoral Officer of the state Saturday announced the schedule for the elections.
The National Conference had said earlier on September 5 that it would not participate unless the Centre cleared its position on Article 35A, which extends constitutional protection to Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
Voting for the municipal elections, which will take place in the state after 13 years, will be held in four phases, on October 8, 10, 13 and 16, Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Shaleen Kabra told a news conference Saturday evening. Votes will be counted on October 20, and the election process will be completed on October 27. With the announcement of the election schedule, the Model Code of Conduct has come into place, Kabra said.
The dates for the panchayat elections, scheduled for November, will be announced Sunday. The State Election Commission was keen to separate the urban local body elections from the panchayat polls to allow for the security structure to switch from the urban to the rural areas.
“We were prepared for these elections in January 2018 as well, but we are currently reviewing a few things including the categorisation of polling booths and other things. We have undertaken the necessary security review and we are satisfied with the measures being taken by the security forces,” Kabra told The Sunday Express. “We are duty bound, and we are going to provide the atmosphere for conduct of free and fair elections, including adequate security,” Kabra said.
On the security situation, K Vijay Kumar, Advisor to the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, told The Sunday Express: “I have visited several places, including in South Kashmir, with the chief secretary. I get the sense that people are eager to participate in the democratic process and see what is in it for them. Some people have expressed their concern about security, which is being taken care of.” The security situation in the Valley, he said, has improved, and is getting “better and better”.
Officials said the decision to hold the municipal elections first was taken because it will be easier for the administration and security forces to manage. “The state administration was of the view that since panchayats are spread out, holding elections to municipal bodies, which are fewer in number, is easier. The number of panchayat constituencies will be over 21,000,” an official said.
total 17 lakh voters will be eligible to elect representatives to 79 municipal bodies in the state, including the Municipal Corporations of Srinagar and Jammu. Twenty of these municipal bodies are in South Kashmir, where the security situation is difficult. However, Kumar said, “The operations against militants have been successful and forces have been able to instill a sense of security.”
Officials said the Home Ministry has already ordered advance mobilisation of security forces for the first phase of the municipal elections with a view to familiarise them with the conditions on the ground. While “security” remains the key concern, particularly in South Kashmir, a decision has been taken to give precedence to “grassroots democracy” in the state, an official said. “This is the first step to normalise the situation,” the official added.
Even though the two major state parties have announced their decision to not participate, the municipal elections will be contested along party lines. The future of Article 35A, over which both parties have raised concerns, is under challenge in the Supreme Court. In August, the Centre had asked the court to delay the hearing in view of municipal and panchayat elections in the state. The Congress is yet to clarify its position on participating in the elections. For the first time, electronic voting machines (EVMs) will be used in the municipal polls, following amendment of rules in 2016. Additionally, voting by migrants, by means of postal ballots, will be allowed for the first time.
“In the past two months, we have revised the electoral rolls and the final list has been published,” the CEO said. Three hundred and twenty-two of the 1,145 wards are reserved for women, 90 for Scheduled Caste candidates, and 30 for the Scheduled Tribes. The last elections to the municipal bodies in the state were held in 2005, and their five-year term ended in 2010. The CEO said that for “greater transparency” and for ease of monitoring of election expenses, candidates would be required to open a separate bank account for election expenses. He said that “Expenditure Observers” would be appointed to keep close watch on election expenses.
Current expenditure limits are Rs 1.50 lakh for election to the municipal corporations, Rs 1 lakh for election to the municipal councils, and Rs 50,000 for election to the municipal committees.