New Delhi: The first phase of the District Development Council (DDC) elections in Jammu and Kashmir saw a voter turnout of 51.76 per cent on Saturday. This was the first-ever electoral exercise held in Jammu and Kashmir since the scrapping of Article 370 from the region last year. Officials said that the first round of polling in the eight-phase maiden DDC elections passed off peacefully, except for a minor incident of stone-pelting in Kulgam, Also Read - BRO Constructs 110-feet Bailey Bridge at Kela Morh on Jammu-Srinagar Highway in Record Time

State Election Commissioner K K Sharma said, “A voter percentage of 51.76 was recorded in the first phase — 64.2 percent in Jammu division and 40.65 percent in Kashmir division.” Also Read - Dal Lake Freezes, Srinagar Records Coldest Night in 30 Years, Administration Deploys SDRF Teams

Reasi in Jammu recorded the highest voter turnout of 74.62 percent while militancy-infested Pulwama in south Kashmir witnessed the least voter participation at 6.7 percent. In Kashmir, Budgam recorded the highest poll percentage of 56.96 percent. Also Read - Suspected Militants Lob Grenade at CRPF Party In Srinagar’s Rainawari Area, No Casualty Reported

“Enthusiasm among the voters was witnessed in all the 43 DDC constituencies which went to polls today including 25 in Kashmir and 18 in Jammu region. The men, women and young voters thronged the polling stations, adhering to the COVID-19 protocols,” Sharma said.

Barring a minor stone-pelting incident in Kulgam district of south Kashmir, the overall polling concluded peacefully with voters showing enthusiasm despite the morning chill, he said.

The election is witnessing a triangular contest among the People”s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an amalgam of parties that are seeking restoration of Article 370, the BJP and the Apni Party floated by former finance minister Altaf Bukhari. In the first phase, as many as 1,475 candidates are in the fray, according to officials. In the Jammu division, Sharma said a turnout of 74.62 percent in Reasi was followed by Rajouri (70.52 percent), Poonch (68.69), Samba (68.61), Doda (64.49), Ramban (64.21), Kathua (62.82), Jammu (61.49), Udhampur (57.13) and Kishtwar (55.16). In Kashmir, Budgam was followed by Kupwara with a turnout of 50.74 percent, Ganderbal (48.62), Bandipora (43.57), Anantnag (43.32), Shopian (42.58), Kulgam (34.35), Srinagar (33.76), Baramulla (32.51) and Pulwama (6.70). Sharma said a total of 3.62 lakh voters including 1.69 women voters, out of around seven lakh, exercised their franchise.

“There was balanced participation which is a good sign for democracy,” he said. “The security situation was also normal and the credit goes for the successful conclusion of the first phase of the elections to all the voters, political parties and independent candidates contesting the elections,” he said.

The election is significant as it is the first major democratic exercise since the Centre abrogated Article 370 that gave special status to J-K and bifurcated the state into two union territories in August year.

The voting for the newly-envisaged DDCs also coincided with bypolls to panchayats.

Sharma said the voting percentage with regard to panch and sarpanch seats was being compiled. He said the counting of votes for the DDC constituencies will be taken on December 22.

Union Minister Jitendra Singh said that high voter turnout in the first phase is indicative of the pent up democratic aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

What is important to note, he said, is that the polling in most of the districts in Kashmir valley is manifold higher than the dismal polling witnessed during the 2019 Lok Sabha election. After the successful conclusion of the first phase, State Election Commissioner K K Sharma said the focus has shifted to the second phase of the DDC polls on December 1. “We have also the same number of 43 DDC constituencies in the second phase of polling.

“The total number of candidates in the fray for this phase is 321 – 125 candidates in 18 seats of Jammu division and 196 candidates in 25 constituencies of Kashmir division,” he said. He said that election will also be held for 164 vacant seats of sarpanch and 1,815 vacant seats of panch in the second phase, for which a total of 2,762 polling stations have been set up across Jammu and Kashmir for over seven lakh voters. Sharma said the polling will be held from 7 am to 2 pm in this phase as well. “He said the people started thronging the polling stations immediately after the commencement of the voting at 7 AM on Saturday.

“We know it is chilly weather in November but it is not compulsory for people to rush to polling stations at the start of the polling,” he said. Sharma said there are young voters and the idea behind the early start of the polling is to ensure timely completion of the process.

He said there are also panch and sarpanch seats located in remote pockets and the counting of votes takes place at the polling stations after the completion of the exercise on the same day. In response to another question about shifting of some polling stations on Friday evening, he said, “We do not usually change the polling stations at the last moment but sometimes, it is needed due to weather conditions.” “The polling stations were shifted in some areas (where there was snowfall) at the request of the district election officers and the process was done as per the election law. A few polling stations were adjusted for the benefit of the voters,” he said. He also appealed to the voters to follow the COVID-19 guidelines. “We have deployed health department officials and there was no complaint of any violation of COVID-related protocols.

“The voting is taking place in seven more phases and, therefore, we appeal to the voters to follow the guidelines so that we have successful polling in all the eight phases,” he said.

(With PTI inputs)