Kashmir's Srinagar votes in large numbers in first election since 2019

By Fayaz Bukhari

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Voters in the main Indian Kashmir city of Srinagar turned out in large numbers in national elections on Monday, reversing the trend of abysmally low vote counts in the first polls since Prime Minister Narendra Modi removed the region's semi-autonomy in 2019.

Srinagar is the first of the Himalayan region's three seats to vote, and saw a turnout of almost 36% until 5 p.m., according to the Election Commission - more than double the 14.43% recorded in the last polls in 2019 but lower than the national average of about 62%.

Roiled by a 35-year insurgency against Indian rule that has killed tens of thousands, the turnout in past elections was also impacted by boycott calls and threats of militant attacks.

With Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) skipping elections in Kashmir for the first time since 1996 saying it will support regional parties instead, the main players are the National Conference and People's Democratic Party which have focused on restoration of semi-autonomy in their campaigns.

Kashmir is disputed between India, which rules the populous Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region of Jammu, and Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west. China holds a thinly populated high-altitude area in the north.

Apart from the issue of semi-autonomy, voters also said they were considering soaring prices and joblessness while casting their ballots - running themes among voters across the country.

"There are other issues which people are facing right now, there is poverty, unemployment," said 50-year-old Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, who voted for the first time in three decades on Monday.

Rafiqa, 56, said she was seeking a change in government since "our children are jobless", an issue reiterated by first time voter Rabia Akhtar, who said "a change of government" was also the determining factor in her vote.

Bashir Ahmad Lala, 67, who was voting for the first time in two decades, was among those focusing on Modi's decision to split Jammu and Kashmir into two federally administered territories - a move the prime minister says brought "normalcy" to the region.

"I voted just to get relief from what we are facing here," he said.

The government's 2019 decision was followed by a harsh lockdown on Kashmir at the time, with several major opposition leaders also held in custody for months.

Although restrictions on people's movement have been relaxed since, there are still tens of thousands of troops deployed in the valley, and military data indicates more than 100 militants continue to be active in the region.

Analysts and opposition parties say the BJP is not contesting elections in Kashmir because it fears the outcome will contradict its narrative of a more peaceful and integrated region since 2019.

Opposition leaders have also accused Modi's administration of denying or cancelling permission to hold campaign events in the run-up to voting.

(Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in Srinagar; Writing by Sakshi Dayal; Editing by Nick Macfie)