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Landmark Bahrain Election Overcomes Call for Boycott

Turnout passes 50% in Persian Gulf nation's first parliamentary poll in nearly 30 years. It is seen as victory for king's pro-Western views.

October 25, 2002|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

MANAMA, Bahrain — In what was hailed as a victory for the pro-Western views of the king, more than 50% of voters on this Persian Gulf island went to the polls Thursday in the first parliamentary election in nearly 30 years.

Islamic leaders had waged a vigorous campaign urging voters to boycott the election to show their disapproval of the limited power-sharing plan devised by the king, Sheik Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa.

But election officials -- backed by international observers -- reported voting was strong even in Shiite Muslim neighborhoods, where disaffection is highest with the king and the royal family, who are Sunnis.

"This is a big success for his majesty's way for democracy that he has presented to the people," said government spokesman Nabeel Hamer.

Hamer suggested that the king may name Shiites to the second legislative chamber, an appointive body created by the new constitution.

"He will not select on the basis of Shiite or Sunni, we are all Bahrainis," Hamer said. "We invite [the boycott leaders] to join us in the march to democracy."

One Islamic leader had predicted the turnout would not exceed 30%. The king's eldest son, Crown Prince Sheik Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa, had sought earlier in the week to downplay the significance of turnout.

With tabulations still underway, turnout was 53.2%, officials said.

All Bahrainis who meet the criteria for voting are eligible to vote, without the need to register.

The king, his wife and the crown prince had used television to stage an American-style campaign to counter the boycott. The drive included an infomercial, a rally with entertainers and sports stars, a press conference by the crown prince and an election eve speech by the king.

The balloting marked the first parliamentary election in an Arab Persian Gulf state in which women could both vote and run for office. Eight women were among the 170 candidates for 40 spots.

Early indications were that none of the women had been elected, but at least one appeared headed for a runoff. In races where no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held next week.

In front-page editorials, Arabic and English-language newspapers in this country of 600,000 had said that refusal to vote would be seen as a vote of no confidence in the king.

"How many other rulers in the Persian Gulf would take a chance on such a referendum?" said one Western diplomat. "Not many. This king has guts."

While much of the election campaign dealt with local issues such as unemployment, education and health care, there was an undercurrent of dissent among some voters about the king's staunch support for the U.S. Navy base here.

U.S. support for Israel and President Bush's threat to use force to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein have led to calls among some Islamic leaders for Bahrain to oust the U.S. military.

A teenager who was killed in a scuffle with police during a rock-throwing protest at the U.S. Embassy has become a martyr in many Shiite homes, which now display his photo.

Bahrain has not had a parliament since the king's late father disbanded it in 1975 after only 18 months. Since succeeding to the throne in 1999, Hamed has launched a modernization drive to turn Bahrain into a tourism, banking and insurance center.

Boycott leaders were angry that, under the new constitution, the second legislative body, with members appointed by the king, will be able to block legislation.

Even if no women are elected to the parliament, the king, 52, has promised to appoint women to the second legislative body -- as well as at least one Jew, one Christian and one Indian.

Although the Bahraini constitution assures equal rights to women, Islamic traditions prevailed on election day. At most polling places, men and women stood in separate lines.

"I want a better future for my children and my grandchildren," said Naeema Bloushi, who runs a women's health spa. "Next time I will vote for myself as a candidate."

Bahrain faces serious social and economic problems, including double-digit unemployment and friction between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority.

"What this country needs is some smoke-filled rooms where deals can be cut and compromises made," one Westerner said.

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