Final round of voting underway in India’s marathon elections

The election is seen as a referendum on Modi’s five-year rule. (File/AFP)
Updated 20 May 2019
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Final round of voting underway in India’s marathon elections

  • The voting on Sunday also covers Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, a holy Hindu city where he was elected in 2014
  • Counting of votes is scheduled for May 23

KOLKATA, India: Indians voted in the seventh and final phase of national elections Sunday, wrapping up a 6-week-long long, grueling campaign season with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party seeking reelection for another five years.
The voting also covers Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, a holy Hindu city where he was elected in 2014 with an impressive margin of over 200,000 votes.
He spent Saturday night at Kedarnath, a temple of Hindu god Shiva nestled in the Himalayas in northern India.
The last round of election includes 59 constituencies in eight states. Up for grabs are 13 seats in Punjab and an equal number in Uttar Pradesh, eight each in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, nine in West Bengal, four in Himachal Pradesh and three in Jharkhand and Chandigarh.
Counting of votes is scheduled for May 23.
In Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, voters lined up outside polling stations since early morning to avoid scorching heat with temperatures reaching up to 38 degree Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit). Armed security officials stood guard in and outside the centers amid fear of violence.
While the election since April 11 has been largely peaceful, West Bengal state in eastern India is an exception. Modi is challenged here by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who heads the more inclusive Trinamool Congress party and eyes a chance to go to New Delhi as the opposition’s candidate for prime minister.
Modi has visited West Bengal 17 times in an effort to make inroads with his Hindu nationalist agenda that had provoked sporadic violence and prompted the Election Commission to cut off campaigning.
Voters were also up early in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state, where the Election Commission arranged for drinking water, shade and fans to cool them down.
“I straightaway came from morning walk to cast my vote and was surprised to see enthusiasm among the voters,” said Ramesh Kumar Singh, who was among the first ones to vote. “There were long queues of people waiting patiently to cast their votes, which is a good sign for democracy.”
The election is seen as a referendum on Modi’s five-year rule. He played up the threat of Pakistan, India’s Muslim-majority neighbor and archrival, especially after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy on Feb. 14 that killed 40 Indian soldiers.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party’s main opposition is Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has produced three prime ministers.
Congress and other opposition parties have challenged Modi over a high unemployment rate of 6.1% and farmers’ distress aggravated by low crop prices.
Some of Modi’s boldest policy steps, such as the demonetization of high currency notes to curb black-market money and bring a large number of people into tax net, proved to be economically damaging. A haphazard implementation of “one nation, one tax“— goods and services tax — also hit small and medium businesses.
Voter turnout in the first six rounds was approximately 66%, the Election Commission said, up slightly from 58% in the last national vote in 2014.
Pre-election poll surveys by the media indicate that no party is likely to win anything close to a majority in Parliament with 543 seats. The BJP, which won a majority of 282 seats in 2014, may need some regional parties as allies to stay in power.
A Congress-led government will require a major electoral upset.


Belgium seeks Uighur family in Xinjiang after disappearance

Updated 17 min 10 sec ago
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Belgium seeks Uighur family in Xinjiang after disappearance

  • The disappearance of the woman and her four children has alarmed her husband, as an estimated one million ethnic Uighurs are believed to be held in internment camps in Xinjiang
  • Abdulhamid Tursun, a political refugee in Belgium, said he has not heard from his family since May 31, a few days after they left the embassy under murky circumstances

BEIJING: A Belgian diplomat was expected to travel to China’s restive Xinjiang region on Tuesday to confirm the whereabouts of a Uighur family that was escorted from Belgium’s embassy in Beijing by police last month.
The disappearance of the woman and her four children has alarmed her husband, as an estimated one million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in internment camps in Xinjiang.
Abdulhamid Tursun, a political refugee in Belgium, said he has not heard from his family since May 31, a few days after they left the embassy under murky circumstances.
“I am worried about their safety,” he told AFP. “I hope they can safely come be at my side as soon as possible, and our family can reunite.”
Belgium’s decision to dispatch a diplomat to Xinjiang comes as the embassy faces criticism for allegedly enabling Chinese police to take the family back to Xinjiang — where they could face detention.
“The case exposes the additional risk Uighurs in China face even if they want to seek help from foreign governments,” said Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International.
“The Belgian embassy set an extremely bad example of how governments put economic interests above human rights,” he told AFP.
China’s foreign ministry and the Xinjiang government did not immediately respond to AFP requests for comment.
The mother, Horiyat Abula, and her four children traveled to Beijing at the end of May to complete missing paperwork for their family reunification visas.
According to Tursun, his wife and children panicked upon learning it would take “at least three months” for their visas to be approved and refused to leave the embassy.
They were afraid to return to their hotel because police had visited them multiple times since they arrived in Beijing, he explained.
“The police came in the middle of the night, asking why they came to Beijing, when they would return,” he said. “They were very scared, they didn’t sleep all night.”
The embassy offered to accompany Abula and her four children back to their hotel, but they “refused to leave the embassy in a kind of sit-in,” a Belgian ministry spokesman told AFP.
In an interview published Tuesday, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told Le Soir newspaper that the diplomatic police “asked the family to leave the premises” and the situation was explained to the father the next day.
An embassy is not intended to “lodge people” applying for visas, he said.
In the end, Chinese police “escorted them away,” the Belgian ministry spokesman told AFP.
A few days later, Abula and her children were taken away by Xinjiang police, her husband said, and he has not heard from her since.
Reynders told the Belga news agency on Monday that the diplomat would go to the address given by the father to check if “everything is going well” with them.
“My only concern here is that we can reunite the family,” he told Belga.
On Monday the foreign ministry did not have confirmation that they were at home.
The case highlights the barriers Uighurs face in attempting to leave China.
According to human rights groups, authorities in Xinjiang have confiscated passports of Uighurs, making it difficult for them to join their relatives overseas.
Abula and her children too have struggled to obtain passports — an issue that Belgium’s ambassador will take up with China’s director of consular affairs, Reynders told Belga.
Abula applied for a passport in 2017, but never received one, according to receipts seen by AFP.
Tursun believes that the family “took a risk” by traveling outside Xinjiang in the first place.
“If my family then returns to (Xinjiang’s capital) Urumqi, it’s very likely that they will be sent to a concentration camp,” he wrote in March in an email to a non-profit helping the family with their visa application.