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EC invites envoys to Valley

New Delhi, Sept. 15: They are not being called “foreign observers” but 18 western diplomats will be present during the first phase of the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, beginning tomorrow, to see for themselves whether the polls in the strife-torn state are peaceful, free and fair.

Also present will be a nearly 100-strong contingent of foreign media along with a larger number of reporters from national newspapers and TV channels.

In the first phase, 23 constituencies in the districts of Kupwara, Baramulla, Rajouri, Poonch and Kargil will go to polls. Two constituencies in Leh have already returned candidates unopposed, while election has been countermanded in the Lolab constituency in Kupwara following the assassination of the National Conference candidate.

A total of 14,36,151 voters spread over 2,000 polling booths will get an opportunity to exercise their franchise in tomorrow’s election.

“The measures adopted by the commission is to make these elections as open as possible to ensure free and fair polls. The commission hopes that the people of Jammu and Kashmir will exercise their franchise freely and fearlessly,” chief election commissioner J.M. Lyndoh said here this afternoon.

Sixteen foreign diplomats will visit Kupwara and Baramulla, while two will go to Rajouri and Poonch for the first phase. Many more diplomats will be visiting the state for the remaining three phases of the elections.

The EC has issued authority letters to 28 western diplomats based in Delhi to be present during the elections. This was done to “ensure openness of the whole election process”.

The visiting diplomats belonged to the US, the UK, France, Italy, Canada, Japan, Australia, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg and the European Union.

“The commission has consistently maintained that no coercive measures will be used by the security personnel to force voters to exercise their franchise,” Lyndoh said, adding full security measures have been taken to protect the voters from “disruptive elements and militants.”

The commission has also replaced 10 local officials deployed to oversee polling in Handwara constituency by those from outside the state following a complaint by the People’s Conference candidate Moinuddin Sofi that the outcome of the election there might be manipulated by chief minister Farooq Abdullah.

Among the steps taken by the EC are computerisation of the electoral rolls, issuing voter’s slips on household basis, introducing photo identity cards and electronic voting machines.

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