Voting began on Thursday morning in 69 constituencies in eight north Karnataka districts in the third and final phase of balloting for the 224-member state Assembly. Winning a majority of the seats in this round is critical for the Congress as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party if either has to get a clear mandate to rule the state which saw the fall of three coalition governments in less than four years after a split verdict in the 2004 Assembly polls.
Balloting is taking place in 12,389 polling stations in the districts of Belgaum, Gulbarga, Bagalkot, Bijapur, Bidar, Gadag, Dharwad and Haveri.
Over 11.72 million voters, including 5.76 million women, are eligible to vote to decide the fate of 699 candidates, an overwhelming majority of whom are independents.
Around 56,000 security personnel are on duty to ensure smooth polling. Police have classified 4,358 polling booths as hyper-sensitive, an official jargon to indicate the possibility of violence.
Voting has taken place in two phases for 155 seats - for 89 on May 10 and 66 on May 16. Counting will take place on May 25.
Prominent people in the field in Thursday’s polling are state Congress president Mallikharjun Kharge, former Congress chief minister N. Dharam Singh and JD-S state president Merajuddin Patel.
Dharam Singh and Kharge will set a record if they are elected as it will be the ninth win in a row for the two. Singh is seeking re-election from Jewargi which has sent him to the assembly eight times while Kharge had to shift from his home seat Gurmitkal as it has been de-reserved and made a general constituency. He is contesting from nearby Chittapur.
The campaign for the third phase was much more vigorous than the first and second with BJP senior leader LK Advani touring the area for two days continuously and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi spending four days.
The Congress campaign was led by party president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi who, between them, addressed five public meetings.
Janata Dal-Secular president and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, his son and former Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy and Bahujan Samaj Party chief and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati have also campaigned for their party candidates.
Like in the second phase, the main battle in this round is between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress dominance was ended by the BJP in the 2004 poll when it won 31 seats from the region to emerge as the single largest party in the house with 79 seats.
The Congress bagged 17 and the JD-S was a surprise victor in 13. The remaining were taken by independents.
The BJP is perceived to have further strengthened its hold on the region as there is a sizeable population of politically influential Lingayat community, a section of which is upset with the Congress for allegedly neglecting its interests.
The JD-S is also expected by political observers to take a hit in the region in the wake of its pulling down of the first BJP chief minister in the state, BS Yediuyurappa, in November last year just a week after he was sworn in.
Yediyurappa belongs to the Lingayat community and the BJP has projected him as its chief ministerial candidate in the present elections.
In the first phase on May 10 when balloting took place for 89 seats from 11 districts, the main contenders were the Congress and the JD-S, though the BJP is confident of doing well there too.