India runs Kashmir council vote despite lockdown and boycott

Predominantly Muslim Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan. (File/AFP)
Updated 24 October 2019

India runs Kashmir council vote despite lockdown and boycott

  • Officials are hoping the elections of leaders for more than 300 councils will lend credibility amid a political vacuum

SRINAGAR, India: Village council elections are being conducted Thursday in Indian-controlled Kashmir, but the absence of mainstream local politicians leaves worry the polls will install puppets of the central Hindu-nationalist government that revoked the disputed region’s semi-autonomous status in early August.
Officials are hoping the elections of leaders for more than 300 councils will lend credibility amid a political vacuum and contend they will represent local interests better than former corrupt state-level government officials.
But the elections are being boycotted by most political parties, including those whose leaders had been sympathetic to the central government but are now in makeshift jails or under house arrest. India’s main opposition Congress party is boycotting as well, possibly allowing a clean sweep for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
The BJP has a very small base in the Kashmir valley, the heart of a decades-old anti-India insurgency in the region of about 12 million people.
Predominantly Muslim Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan, with both countries claiming the region in its entirety. Insurgents in the Indian-controlled portion demand independence or a merger with Pakistan.
In the elections, members of the more than 300 Block Development Councils formed last year will choose chairs. Each block comprises a cluster of villages across Jammu and Kashmir, a state that India’s Parliament downgraded in August to a federal territory, a change that takes effect on Oct. 31.
About 1,000 people are running. In at least 25 councils, candidates are running unopposed.
Most of the candidates and thousands of council members, the electorate for Thursday’s vote, have lived for months in hotels in Srinagar, the region’s main city, over security concerns. In the past, militants fighting against Indian rule have targeted poll contestants.
Officials tout the councils, which will be responsible for allocating government funds, as grassroots democracy.
But observers say the system lacks legitimacy in Kashmir.
Political scientist Dr. Noor Ahmed Baba said the exercise, at least in theory, is an “important layer of democracy” but questioned conducting it in “extremely difficult and abnormal times.”
“When most people are bothered about their basic freedoms and livelihood, facing crushing restrictions, you’ve these elections,” Baba said. “This is more like completing a formality. It looks more like an artificial exercise.”
The council elections held last December were boycotted by separatist leaders and armed rebel groups who challenge India’s sovereignty over Kashmir. Both rebels and separatists in the past have called elections in Kashmir an illegitimate exercise under military occupation.
About 60% of the 21,208 village council seats in the Kashmir valley are vacant because no one ran for them. The winners of another 30% were elected unopposed.
Police chief Dilbagh Singh said authorities have made security arrangements for the Thursday’s elections to be conducted smoothly.
Before downgrading Kashmir’s status, New Delhi sent tens of thousands of additional troops to the already heavily militarized regions, imposed a sweeping curfew, arrested thousands, and cut virtually all communications.
Authorities have since eased some restrictions, lifting roadblocks and restoring landlines and some mobile phones. They have encouraged students to return to school and businesses to reopen, but Kashmiris have largely stayed home, in defiance or fear amid threats of violence.
The Modi government says removing a constitutional provision that had given Kashmir some measure of autonomy since independence from British rule in 1947 was necessary to give rights afforded other Indian citizens, to usher in greater economic development and do away with the sense of separateness that BJP leaders say has cultivated the separatist movement.
But as the crackdown continues, Kashmiris have quietly refused to resume their normal lives, confounding India at their own economic expense.
Shops have adopted new, limited hours of operation in the early morning and evening. Taxi drivers haven’t returned to the roads.
Shailendra Kumar, the chief electoral officer, said the government had planned for the polls in June.
Conducting the polls amid an ongoing crackdown “could be a discussion point,” Kumar said, “but should we delay it for another year? I don’t think so. This is a clear-cut system governed by rules, and rules don’t ask me to gauge mood and sentiments but to facilitate the process.”
Some Kashmiris view the polls cynically, as a move to create a new political elite loyal to the Modi government that found its plans widely rejected in the region.
“Every election here is meant to pull wool over eyes of Kashmiris and create a smoke screen that everything is fine here,” said Mohammed Abdullah, a college teacher. “It’s also meant to convey to the world that India is a democracy and Kashmir is part of this vibrant democracy.”
To Abdullah and other Kashmiris still reeling from the changes in the region, Thursday’s polls suggest the opposite.


Italy has nothing to fear from ESM reform, PM Conte says

Updated 11 December 2019

Italy has nothing to fear from ESM reform, PM Conte says

  • Critics of the planned changes to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) say they would make it more likely that Italy will have to restructure its debt
  • During his speech to parliament, Conte sharply rejected criticisms by the right-wing League and Brothers of Italy parties

ROME: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte dismissed criticisms of planned reforms to the euro zone bailout fund on Wednesday, saying the proposals, which have been heavily attacked by right-wing opposition parties, posed no threat to Italy.

Critics of the planned changes to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) say they would make it more likely that Italy will have to restructure its debt, the highest in the euro area as a proportion of national output after Greece’s.

“Italy has nothing to fear ... its debt is fully sustainable, as the main international institutions, including the (EU) Commission have said,” Conte told parliament ahead of a European Council meeting this week to discuss the reform.

He repeated that Rome would not agree to any restrictions on banks holding sovereign debt.

During his speech to parliament, Conte sharply rejected criticisms by the right-wing League and Brothers of Italy parties, saying they appeared aimed at undermining Italy’s membership of the single currency.

“Some of the positions that have emerged during the public debate have unveiled the ill-concealed hope of bringing our country out of the euro zone or even from the European Union,” Conte said.

The League and Brothers of Italy have attacked the planned reforms to the ESM, which they say will open the door for a forced restructuring of Italy’s public debt that would hit Italian banks and savers who invest in government bonds.

Some members of the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement have made similar criticisms, adding to tensions with their partner in the ruling coalition, the center-left Democratic Party.

Lawmakers from 5 Star and the Democratic Party appeared to have smoothed over their differences on Wednesday, however, agreeing to drop demands for a veto on measures that could make it easier to reach a debt restructuring accord.

In a final resolution, they scrapped calls for a veto on so-called single limb collective action clauses (CACS), that limit the ability of individual investors to delay any restructuring agreement by holding out for better terms.

Under the new system, restructuring would go ahead after a single, aggregate vote by bondholders regarding all affected bonds while the clauses currently in place require an aggregate vote as well as an individual bond-by-bond vote.

Italy has asked to clarify that the new clauses will not rule out the so-called sub-aggregation, allowing separate votes for different groups of bond issuances to protect small investors, a government official told Reuters.