The fifth phase of the District Development Council elections in Jammu and Kashmir on Thursday saw a voter turnout of 43.27% till 1 pm, data from the Election Commission showed.

Jammu region recorded a turnout of 57.25%, while Kashmir division saw a turnout of 27.33%. The highest turnout of 64.54% was recorded in Jammu’s Rajouri district, and the lowest of 3.74% was registered in Shopian district of Kashmir.

Meanwhile, Peoples Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti alleged that the armed forces were being used to rig the elections. She tagged the Election Commission of India and the Indian Army in a tweet.

“Security forces have cordoned Matribugh in Shopian and are not allowing people to come out to vote under the pretext of inputs about presence of militants,” she tweeted. “In a brazen display of power, armed forces are being used to rig this election and favour a particular party.”

Over eight lakh voters in Jammu and Kashmir will decide the fate of 299 candidates in the fifth phase, reported Times Now. Out of the 280 constituencies in the Union Territory, 37 will vote in this phase. This includes 17 in Kashmir and 20 in Jammu division.

Voting will also be held for panchayat bye-polls in 58 posts of sarpanch and 218 vacant panch seats. “There are 125 sarpanch vacancies which have been notified in the fifth phase and out of these 30 have been elected unopposed,” State Election Commissioner KK Sharma said on Wednesday. “There shall be a contest in 58 constituencies and 175 candidates, including 51 women, are in the fray.”

The state election commission said a total of 8,27,519 electors are eligible to cast their votes in this phase. This includes 4,33,285 men and 3,94,234 women. While 4,39,529 voters are in Jammu division, 3,87,990 are in Kashmir division.

As standard protocol for the coronavirus pandemic, authorities have made arrangements of hand sanitisers, face masks and thermal scanners at the polling stations, where voters will cast their ballot in freezing cold across the region.

Elections to the District Development Council is the first electoral exercise to take place in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5 last year, when the Narendra Modi-led government revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status, annulled its separate constitution, split the area into two Union Territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir – and removed inherited protections on land and jobs.

The elected members have no legislative powers and are only responsible for economic development and public welfare of the region.

So far, the four phases of voting were held on November 28, December 1, December 4 and December 7, registered a voter turnout of 51.76%, 48.62%, 50.53% and 50.08%, respectively. Voting will conclude on December 19 and the counting of votes will be held on December 22. The results of panchayat bye-elections will be declared on the polling day itself.

Developing the districts

The elections, which are being held in eight phases, are a step to setting up district development councils, a new addition to Jammu and Kashmir’s panchayati raj system. The directly elected district councils will replace the district development boards originally envisaged as the third tier of local government by the 1989 Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act. The boards were to consist of the block council chiefs, local MPs, MLAs and municipal council members. But Jammu and Kashmir’s legislative Assembly was dissolved after August 5 last year.

Now, the electoral map of Kashmir will be redrawn to account for the new district councils. With direct elections, the third tier of the panchayati raj system will have a completely different composition from the lower two tiers.

The jurisdiction of the district development councils, which have a five-year term, will not extend to those areas notified as municipalities. So elections will only be held in areas falling outside municipalities. There are reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women.

Each district council will have five standing committees – one each for finance, development, public works, health and education, and welfare. While they might look after the day to day and developmental needs of the district, members of the council have no say on larger political issues such as special status, land laws and industrial policy.