New Delhi, Oct. 13: Exit polls suggest a close race in Maharashtra, which went to polls today and clocked a voter turnout of 55-60 per cent.
Initial trends from The Telegraph-STAR News exit poll, conducted by AC Nielsen, put the Congress-NCP combine ahead but three short of the majority mark of 145. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance has been projected to win 122 seats and others 24.
Most other exit polls, too, forecast either a tight race or a split verdict, swivelling the spotlight back on fringe players and Independents who will play a decisive role if the predictions come true.
According to The Telegraph-STAR News exit poll, the ruling Congress-NCP alliance is expected to retain its Lok Sabha poll edge in Mumbai and bag 23 of the 36 Assembly seats.
The exit poll, with a sample size of around 24,000 voters and conducted across all six regions of Maharashtra, has a margin of error of +/-3 per cent.
But the poll confirmed the Congress-NCP camp's worst fears in the sugar-rich western Maharashtra that accounts for the largest number of seats ' 72 ' among the six regions. The ruling alliance is projected to lose as many as eight seats from the two parties' combined tally in 1999.
Yet, the advantage has not gone to the Opposition alliance. At 13 seats, the 'rebel bloc' from the region ' most of them either Congress or NCP dissidents ' are shown as winning as many seats as the Sena-BJP combine.
Surprisingly, the exit poll showed the ruling combine making gains in the 24-seat Konkan region, considered a Sena bastion. Like the Congress-NCP combine in western Maharashtra, the Sena, which still has a thin advantage over the rival combine in the region, was dogged by rebellion in Konkan.
But the ruling combine is projected to suffer another setback in a traditional stronghold ' tribal areas. In the predominantly tribal area of northern Maharashtra, where the Congress was expected to do well, the exit poll gave a clear lead to the saffron combine: 23 of the 42 seats.
The exit poll forecast for the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions is on expected lines, though the ruling alliance appears to have regained some ground.
The fortunes of both groups have declined since the publication of the first pre-poll survey of The Telegraph-STAR News three weeks ago. The pre-poll survey had said the Opposition alliance could win 128 seats ' 20 less than the 148 given to the ruling alliance.
The Election Commission will declare the result on Saturday. Counting will start at 8 am and is expected to be over by 2 pm, a commission spokesperson said.
The polling today was largely peaceful, barring a skirmish between Naxalites and police in Vidarbha. A peda-induced food-poisoning of Congress-NCP activists also sparked a scare.