India’s election marathon at the finishing line

NEW DELHI, May 12, 2009 (AFP) – Millions of voters cast their final ballots Wednesday in India’s marathon election, with analysts predicting the emergence of a shaky coalition government that will struggle to survive a full term. The fifth and final phase of voting in seven states wraps up the world’s largest democratic exercise that began way back on April 16.

The first exit polls — banned during the staggered voting process — are expected hours after polling closes, although the official result will be announced by the Election Commission only on Saturday.

Neither the ruling alliance led by the Congress party, nor the main opposition bloc headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seen as capable of securing an absolute majority.

Saturday’s results are therefore expected to trigger a frantic round of political horse-trading as the two main blocs scrabble for new partners among a multitude of regional parties — all with their own local agendas.

“Everything will depend on numbers,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged at a press briefing Monday.

Whatever formation emerges with enough seats to govern India’s 1.1 billion people, observers say it will most likely be an u