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Bahrainis go to polls amid sectarian tension

Parliamentary vote held in wake of security crackdown; Assembly has little policy-making clout; Bahrain seen as bulwark against rising Iran.

October 23, 2010 12:14 by

Bahrainis began to cast their votes for a new parliament on Saturday against a backdrop of rising sectarian tensions in the Gulf Arab country where decision making is tightly controlled by its rulers.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has a Shi’ite majority population but is governed by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty, which allies Saudi Arabia and the United States see as a bulwark against the regional influence of Shi’ite power Iran.

The island kingdom is the smallest Gulf Arab nation but a reform process launched by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa a decade ago has been closely watched in the region, especially after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq brought Shi’ites to power there.

Saturday’s elections are the third since the establishment of the current parliament, which has limited powers because bills need to pass an upper house whose members are appointed by the king.

The run-up to the polls was overshadowed by a broad security crackdown against some Shi’ite opposition groups in August. The government has also clamped down on bloggers and human rights activists.

Observers say the level of participation and any increase in street protests after the elections will be more telling than the actual results, where few changes are expected.

Abdallah Hassan, voting in the Shi’ite village of Karranah, was not optimistic that the elections would help address the Shi’ite community’s grievances against the government. Many say they face discrimination over state housing and jobs.

“There is no change in Bahrain, whether you have elections or not … The parliamentarians can’t change the laws and the economic situation,” he said.

Polls opened at 0500 GMT and will close at 1700 GMT. Results are expected to be announced on Sunday morning.

Voting day was expected to be largely peaceful, but two police helicopters were circling above the capital.

Bahrain, with 1.3 million inhabitants and — unlike its neighbours — no oil and gas reserves, relies on foreign investment and tries to present itself as having a business-friendly environment.

“People in Bahrain were not expecting this crackdown, it came as a surprise and has imposed itself on the campaigns,” said Jassim Hussain, an outgoing member of parliament for the main Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq.

Next week, 23 men charged with plotting to overthrow the political system will appear in court for the first hearing in their trial.

Another voter said he believed the crackdown — which drew condemnation from international human rights groups and mild censure from Washington — was not related to the elections.

“It’s a coincidence, the arrests just happened a few months ago. King Hamad had been soft and lenient with (those arrested) and they saw this as weakness,” said businessman Jamil Wafa as he queued to cast his vote at the City Centre mall in Manama.

The polling station is one of 10 general voting stations where voters can vote outside their residential area, a matter of concern for the opposition which says this makes monitoring more difficult.

Wefaq has fielded only 18 candidates for the 40-seat assembly. Critics accuse Bahrain of delineating its voting districts in such a way as to ensure the Shi’ite opposition will not have a majority in parliament.

Some densely populated Shi’ite districts have up to 15,000 registered voters, while areas where only Sunni candidates are running have a much smaller number on the electoral roll.

(By Frederik Richter)

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