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Bahrain's Shiite majority makes gains in elections

Despite a crackdown on the opposition, calls for a boycott and alleged voting irregularities, the majority advances slightly. Shiites have long complained of discrimination by the Sunni monarchy.

October 24, 2010|By Alexandra Sandels, Los Angeles Times
  • Bahraini Justice Minister Khalid ibn Ali Khalifa announces election results in Manama, the capital. The vote pitted the Sunni monarchy against the Shiite majority.
Bahraini Justice Minister Khalid ibn Ali Khalifa announces election results… (Marwan Naamani / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Beirut — Bahrain's Shiite Muslim majority made slight gains in closely watched parliamentary elections over the weekend despite a widespread crackdown on activists and boycott calls by some groups.

Election results released Sunday showed that the Wefaq Party, representing the mostly Shiite opposition, won 18 of 40 seats, a victory in every race it fielded a candidate and one more position than it won in the last election. Thirteen pro-government candidates also were elected.

No candidate won a majority among the remaining seats, including some being contested by other parties challenging the government. Those races will be decided in an Oct. 30 runoff, giving the opposition a chance at winning majority control of parliament.

Voters in the Persian Gulf island nation on Saturday cast ballots for the third time in eight years to elect a parliament and municipal councils amid reports of voting irregularities and mounting sectarian tension between the Sunni Muslim-led government and the Shiite majority.

The vote is being closely watched for its regional implications, pitting the Sunni monarchy and its supporters, backed by Saudi Arabia and Washington, against an opposition with strong ties to Shiite clergy and politicians in Iran and Iraq.

Arab news reports said more than 67% of those eligible to vote had cast ballots, suggesting the boycott call by some opposition parties had not borne fruit.

Webcams and nearly 300 election observers were set to monitor polling stations. Some observers raised concerns about irregularities and voting problems at the stations and the heavy deployment of security forces at the entrances to the sites and inside villages as the voting got underway.

Bahrain did not allow international monitoring of the polls, and more than 1,000 people were barred from voting in opposition strongholds, alleged Abdulnabi Alekry, president of the Bahrain Transparency Society, an independent election monitor, which had 120 observers at polling stations around the country.

More than 300,000 voters out of a population of about 1.3 million were eligible to cast ballots at 49 polling stations in the country for 127 candidates, seven of them women, vying for seats in the parliament and 171 hopefuls for seats on municipal councils.

Bahrain's Shiites have complained repeatedly of discrimination by the Sunni-led government, accusing it of naturalizing foreign Sunni Muslims from countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia in an effort to alter the sectarian balance and decrease Shiite power in the country.

Islamist parties, Shiite opposition groups and the secular leftist Waad party were competing for seats in Saturday's balloting, which is part of a now-faltering reform initiative launched a decade ago by King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa.

Although the parliament has some role in policymaking, the Saudi Arabia- and Washington-backed government, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, remains firmly under the control of the Khalifa clan. Bahrain's rulers are wary of increased Iranian influence in their country through the Shiite population.

The election was overshadowed by a severe crackdown on the opposition. Several of the leaders and members of these movements were arrested this year and are among about two dozen prominent opposition activists scheduled to go on trial Thursday on charges of terrorism and plotting to overthrow the government.

Sandels is a special correspondent.

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