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India starts marathon vote marred by Maoist attacks

With Maoist insurgents stepping up attacks, Indians began voting in a month-long general election today with signs an unstable coalition may emerge in the middle of an economic slowdown.

The ruling Congress party-led coalition appears to lead against an alliance headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but both may need the support of a host of smaller and unpredictable regional parties to win office.

The fear among investors is that the world's largest democratic exercise involving 714 million voters and hundreds of parties will lead to the rise of a "Third Front" government of communist and regional groups.

The uncertain vote comes as a once-booming India reels from a crunch that has cost millions of jobs. It has ignited fears of political limbo just as India balances needs to help millions of poor with worries over its biggest fiscal gap in two decades.

Highlighting growing militant threats, Maoists killed five election officials in a landmine blast in Chhattisgarh state. Ten police were killed in other attacks across India's central and eastern "red belt" where Thursday's election was centred.

The government has deployed hundreds of thousands of police to protect more than 140 million people who can vote on Thursday in polls that cover some of India's poorest states hit by the four-decade old Maoist insurgency.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described Maoist violence as India's biggest internal security threat and 500 civilians and police were killed in insurgent clashes last year.

The outcome of the five-stage election will be known on May 16. India's elections are notoriously hard to predict and polls have been wrong in the past. Exit polls are banned.

A clear win by either of the two main parties could see a rally on India's markets, but the emergence of a weak coalition of regional and communist parties could see stocks fall by as much as 30 percent, market watchers say.

"There are widespread apprehensions that the verdict of May 16 will be hideously fractured and will inevitably lead to another election in a year or two," wrote Ashok Malik in the Hindustan Times.

Thursday's election ranged from the snowbound Chinese border to holy towns on the Ganges River.

Some election officials rode elephants to remote polling stations near the Myanmar border. Other ballots were brought by two-day sea trips to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

In Varanasi, the northern sacred city on the Ganges River known for its Hindu gurus, many voters arrived on bicycles and bullock carts to cast electronic votes.

Women in saris or burqas, often carrying children, pressed buttons with pictorial symbols of each party, after their fingers were marked with ink to avoid fraud.

"Nowadays there are so many small parties, previously there used to be only one or two big parties," said Mohammed Mustaquim, waiting to vote in Varanasi. "This makes choosing difficult."

Ancient caste, religious and ethnic ties will play a huge role in the vote as well as national problems like the slowdown, security fears and local issues from the building of a village water pump to problems of wild elephants trampling on villagers.

The centre-left Congress party is wooing voters with populist measures such as food subsidies in a country were hundreds of millions live below the poverty line.

Singh is Congress's official candidate. But Rahul Gandhi, the 38-year-old scion of India's most powerful family dynasty, has become one of Congress's main election cards, criss-crossing the nation in helicopter.

The BJP accuses its main rival of poor governance and being weak on security, after a string of militant attacks last year culminated in a rampage in Mumbai by Islamist gunmen that killed 166 people and hiked tensions with nuclear-armed Pakistan.