Lawmakers in India vote today for a new president with former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee set to be elected head of state, ending a four-decade political career with elevation to what is mostly a ceremonial role.
Mukherjee, 76, is pitted against Purno A. Sangma, 64, a former speaker of the lower house of parliament. Counting of ballots will take place July 22. The president is chosen by legislators from the states and both houses of the federal assembly. Voting began at 10 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m.
The ruling United Progressive Alliance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is backing Mukherjee, as are regional groups including the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party which dominate politics in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. Sangma is supported by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and most of its allies.
Mukherjee’s victory “is almost certain as he enjoys the support of at least 65 percent of the electoral college,” said Satish Misra, an analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. The president is the supreme commander of the armed forces, oversees the creation of a government in the event of a hung parliament and can in rare circumstances send some bills back to lawmakers for reconsideration. The next general election is due by early 2014.
The elevation of Mukherjee would be a “morale booster for Congress” following two years during which it has been dogged by allegations of corruption, most notably over a 2008 sale of mobile-phone licenses, and defeated in polls for key regional assemblies, said Misra.
Mukherjee has been the Congress party’s troubleshooter in managing conflicts with allies including Mamata Banerjee, leader of Trinamool Congress, who has repeatedly blocked Singh’s attempts to open up the economy to more foreign investment. An isolated Banerjee agreed to support Mukherjee’s candidature July 17 after opposing it for weeks.
Singh, an economist who as finance minister in the 1990s scripted India’s market opening, has taken charge of the portfolio as economic growth has slowed to a nine-year low.
Married with two sons and a daughter, Mukherjee, who was a teacher and journalist before entering politics, has had stints in charge of India’s foreign, defense, commerce and steel ministries. Singh was serving as governor of the Reserve Bank of India when Mukherjee ran a closed economy as finance minister from 1982 to 1984.
The winner of the presidential vote will succeed President Pratibha Devisingh Patil, whose five-year term ends July 24. Elections for the post of vice president will be held on Aug. 7.
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