Kashmir parties work on cobbling together coalition

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Political parties in Kashmir tried to stitch together a coalition on Monday after elections seen as a vote for better governance in the disputed region rather than acceptance of Indian rule.

Omar Abdullah, president of the National Conference (NC) party, watches cheering supporters after he won a seat in legislative assembly elections in Srinagar December 29, 2008. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli

The National Conference, the region’s single largest party, said it would talk to the Congress party. No clear winner emerged at the end of a month-long, seven-phase poll.

“We will formally approach Congress for the formation of the government,” National Conference president Omar Abdullah told reporters.

Abdullah’s party won 28 of the assembly’s 87 seats, the Congress 17, the regional People’s Democratic Party 21, Bharatiya Janata Party 11 and other parties and independents won 10 seats.

Despite a boycott call by separatists and Muslim militants, the election had a turnout of more than 60 percent of Kashmir’s 6.4 million voters.

The National Conference and People’s Democratic Party strongly back greater autonomy for the region to help end a two-decade separatist rebellion. The Congress party believes Kashmir is an integral part of India.

The large voter turnout has encouraged New Delhi, which now hopes to blunt separatist sentiments and bring peace by investing heavily in development projects and job creation.

“The high voter turnout is a clear victory of the large majority who wish the restoration of peace and normalcy,” N.N. Vohra, the governor of the Jammu and Kashmir state, said in a statement.


Separatists saw the high voter turnout as a desire to choose a good government that can build roads and improve civic amenities and did not believe that undermined the independence movement.

“Undoubtedly people voted, but they voted for water, electricity and employment, not for Indian rule,” senior separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani said.

“The freedom struggle will go on until it reaches its logical conclusion.”

Separatists in Kashmir, claimed by India and Pakistan but ruled in part by both, say New Delhi uses elections as an endorsement of its rule over the region.

Kashmir came under New Delhi’s direct rule in July after the incumbent Congress-People’s Democratic Party coalition government fell over a land dispute.

The controversy became the trigger for some of Kashmir’s biggest anti-India protests since a revolt against New Delhi’s rule began in 1989, threatening the success of any India government-backed vote.

Muslim guerrillas have in the past used violence to scupper elections, but this year the United Jihad Council (UJC), a Pakistan-based militant alliance fighting Indian troops in Kashmir, rejected the use of violence to force a boycott.

In 2002 elections more than 700 people, including politicians and political workers, were killed. This year’s vote was peaceful in comparison.

Overall violence has fallen significantly across Kashmir since India and Pakistan began peace talks in 2004, although New Delhi has imposed a pause in that dialogue after last month’s Mumbai attacks blamed on Pakistan-based militants.

Officials say more than 47,000 people have been killed in nearly two decades of violence involving Indian troops and Islamist militants in Kashmir. Separatists put the toll at 100,000.