The votes in the hotly-contested local body elections in Kerala, a precursor to the Assembly elections next year, will be counted starting 8 am Wednesday.
The elections to 15,962 wards in 941 grama panchayats, 2080 wards in 152 block panchayats, 331 divisions in 14 district panchayats, 3078 wards in 86 municipalities and 414 wards in six municipal corporations were held in three phases on December 8, 10 and 14.
The overall voter turnout of 76%, only marginally lower than 77.76% in 2015, has been impressive considering the Covid-19 restrictions this time at polling booths. Turnout was higher in the northern districts in the final phase as compared to the first two phases.
The state election commission has completed all the preparations for the counting of votes at 244 counting centres across the state. The counting of votes to the three-tier panchayats will take place at the respective block-level centres. The votes to the municipalities and the corporations will be counted at the respective local body where the machines are stored.
Postal votes along with those cast by Covid-19 patients and those in quarantine will be counted first, followed by the general votes on the EVMs. Trends across local bodies are expected to become clear by noon.
The elections are an opportunity for all three political fronts — CPM-led LDF, Congress-led UDF and the BJP-led NDA — to demonstrate their strength at the grassroot level and thus gain an upper hand going into the Assembly elections next year.
The 2010 and the 2015 local body polls were a useful barometer of the direction of the political winds in the Assembly elections in the following years.
While the panchayat elections invariably are rooted to hyperlocal, ward-specific candidates and issues, given that they are mostly fought along political lines, the results will have deep insights on some of the political undercurrents in Kerala and how they will potentially shape up before the Assembly elections.
For one, these elections will be a litmus test for the two prominent Kerala Congress factions – KC(M) led by Jose K Mani and the KC(J) led by PJ Joseph fighting on opposite ends of the political spectrum and what dividends they will pay to their respective LDF and UDF coalitions. The winner will have greater bargaining power when it comes to seat allocation next year.
Secondly, the poll results especially in the northern districts of Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasaragod will indicate if the UDF’s decision to have an ‘understanding’ with the Welfare Party of India, backed by the Jamaat-e-Islami, in certain areas has paid off. It will point to the larger issue of whether secular parties like the Congress is playing a dangerous game by allying with forces like the Jamaat.
Thirdly, as stressed by CPM leaders themselves, the polls will be seen as a referendum on the governance and welfare initiatives of the four-and-a-half-year-old Pinarayi Vijayan government and the popularity of the chief minister himself to shore up votes for his party. There is no question that the unearthing of the gold smuggling scam in July, the arrest of the CM’s principal secretary, interrogation of one of his ministers by central agencies, irregularities in the housing scheme and the move to introduce draconian amendments to the Kerala Police Act and later withdrawn under public pressure have all tainted the image of the government. Whether these issues have been a factor in the voter’s mind will have to be seen.
Four, this is the first election the BJP has faced under its new state president, K Surendran who he took charge in February this year. Inspired by its performances in the Bihar Assembly elections and the Hyderabad municipal elections, the party will be keen to improve its vote-share from the paltry 13.28% it got in 2015 and even gain control of a few important local bodies. Getting a mayor of its own in the Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur corporations are its priorities, though the task is not simple.
The reasonably good turnout in all three phases, rising above the limitations of the Covid-19 pandemic, have spurred the three fronts to make their own deductions about their chances. By the afternoon of December 16, the picture will be clear.
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