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India's elections approach the finish line

Waiting to vote in Delhi. Photo: Cheena Kapoor/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The last phase of voting in India’s staggered elections will take place on Sunday, bringing an end to a festive and fiery six-week process to determine who will lead the world’s largest democracy for the next five years.

What to watch: Polling has already taken place for 483 of the 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs in the massive elections, which feature 900 million eligible voters and 1 million polling stations. The results will be announced on May 23.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a second term in office and a parliamentary majority for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies.

  • Modi has run a nationalistic campaign, and aimed to make the election a referendum on his leadership. He remains popular despite high unemployment and struggles in rural India.
  • The rival Congress party has accused Modi of stoking divisions and ignoring attacks on India’s minority Muslim population.
  • Jobs, health care and security have been the central themes of the election. Both parties have also promised generous welfare programs.

Officials have estimated turnout to be around 67%, similar to what was seen in 2014 and close to the highest levels since independence.

  • Women are said to be voting in record numbers and could even make up the majority of the electorate for the first time. The leading parties have tried to court them by promising to reserve government jobs for women, among other policies.
  • However, less than 9% of the candidates are women. India has far less female representation than other countries in South Asia (women make up just 11% of the current parliament) and that’s unlikely to change this cycle.

Suspected criminals, meanwhile, are vastly overrepresented.

  • The Association for Democratic Reform, a New Delhi based think tank, analyzed nearly 8,000 candidates and found that 1-in-5 five was facing a criminal case. Over 1,000 of them face serious charges such as rape, murder, attempted murder or kidnapping.

The election has been the costliest in Indian history, with candidates and parties spending around $7 billion, according to Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment.

  • “Black money” is a particular problem. India’s election commission has seized $490 million worth of cash, drugs, alcohol and gold that were to be distributed to voters.

What's next: The BJP is expected to be the largest party, but will have to attempt to cobble together a coalition if it fails to match its landslide victory in 2014. There are a number of small and regional parties contesting the election, complicating the electoral math.