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India sets dates for April-May general election

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India will hold a general election between April 16 and May 13, election officials said on Monday, kicking off a mammoth process in which 714 million people will be able to cast their votes.

Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami (L) and Election Commissioner Naveen Chawla hold the schedule of elections during the announcement of the general election dates at the Election Commission in New Delhi March 2, 2009. REUTERS/B Mathur

Analysts and pollsters see no party emerging with a clear majority from the election, possibly leading to weeks or even months of political uncertainty as parties negotiate for power just as the once booming economy has been hit by a downturn.

The chief of the Election Commission, which runs elections in the world’s largest democracy, said counting of ballots would take place on May 16.

The main battle will be between the Congress-led coalition and the leading opposition bloc, headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Congress, led by India’s most powerful leader Sonia Gandhi, has said it would nominate Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the top job while L.K. Advani is the BJP-led bloc’s prime ministerial candidate.

Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami told reporters voting would be held in five phases.

“The process of finalising the election schedule takes into account the school examinations ... the local holidays ... festivals, the harvest season and so on,” he said.

The staggered voting is to allow security forces to move around the country to curb any attempt to coerce an electorate more than twice the population of the United States.

If the alliances headed by the national parties -- the Congress and BJP -- fail to win power a loose coalition of smaller parties known as the Third Front could come to office.

Chief among these are the communists, who thwarted pro-reform policies while supporting the incumbent Congress-led coalition. India could see a rise in protectionism and few financial reforms if the Third Front comes to power.

Any uncertainty after the election could mean a delay in fixing an economy with a widening fiscal deficit that has many investors worried.

“At the moment, there is lot of uncertainty,” said D.H. Pai Panandikar, head of private think tank RPG Foundation. “Companies will not be able to raise capital and investments will go down.”

While the financial crisis and security are seen as national issues, many experts say the vote could be dominated by a myriad of caste and regional alliances and local issues.

ECONOMIC SLOWDOWN

The election comes amid a decline in the economy which is expected to expand 7.1 percent in fiscal 2008/09, the slowest pace in six years. Domestic demand has slumped and exports have dipped sharply.

But it is still unclear how the slowdown will play out with the majority voters in the countryside where government financial help to the farm sector and a landmark jobs scheme have lifted millions out of poverty. Inflation has also fallen.

Analysts say the Congress has been able to checkmate opposition criticism over poor security after the Mumbai attacks by introducing a new terror law, improving security, changing the country’s home minister and raising defence spending.

But another militant strike before the election could put terrorism on the top of the voter agenda.

The month-long vote would see about four million election workers -- about half of them security personnel -- manning more than 800,000 polling stations.

Around 1.1 million electronic voting machines will be used across the nation to elect 543 members of parliament.

Gopalaswami said voting would be held in five phases in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir and India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh which sends the single biggest number of members to parliament.

Elections are staggered in four phases in Bihar which has a history of poll-related violence.

With just a month and a half to go, parties are reaching out to each other for pre-election tie-ups.

The Congress said on Sunday it was allying with the regional Trinamool Congress Party in West Bengal, a long-standing communist stronghold.

The Samajwadi Party, which propped up the government after its communist allies withdrew support last year over a civilian nuclear deal with the United States, said it was in talks with the Congress.

“An alliance will happen,” Samajwadi leader Mulayam Singh Yadav told reporters after a meeting with Sonia Gandhi.

(For more election-related stories click: here)

Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty and Matthias Williams

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