MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) – Bahrainis filed into polling stations across this island kingdom on Saturday for the second time in two weeks, casting ballots that will decide whether parliament is headed by pro-government Sunni Muslims or a Shiite-led opposition.
An opposition coalition backed by the country’s downtrodden majority Shiites needed just five of 11 seats to take a majority of 40 seats in parliament’s elected lower house.
Whichever faction wins, the runoff vote in this tiny U.S. ally looked set to deepen divisions between the chief religious factions in this liberal Gulf state, while packing parliament with hardline Islamists.
In elections a week ago, the Shiite al-Wefaq party took 16 seats, 40 percent of the total.
Al-Wefaq’s opponents, religious Sunnis allied with this island kingdom’s rulers, took 13 seats in a general election. Sunnis need at least eight more seats to take control.
The election has been hailed as a step forward in Bahraini democracy, which began a slow resurgence in 2002 after 26 years of direct rule by the al-Khalifa royal family. The poll gives Bahrain’s Shiite majority its best shot ever at influencing government. But even if the Shiites win control of parliament’s lower house, the key levers to power still lie with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who appoints parliament’s upper chamber and can veto any legislation.
The first-round voting gave a sweeping victory to Islamic hard-liners, who dispatched most women and liberal challengers.
Only Latifa al-Gaoud, a pro-government woman candidate who ran unopposed, was able to win a seat. Al-Gaoud became the first-ever female parliamentarian in any Arab Gulf country. Religious Shiites are expected to pick up one more seat, their 17th, in a contest that pits two Shiites against one another. Observers also believe that a liberal ally of al-Wefaq has a chance of winning Saturday, thus the opposition bloc could be 18 out of 40 members in the lower house.
According to newspaper’ reports published Saturday, the Royal Court has met with and reappointed 24 people who were members of the 40-strong upper house, the Shura Council, between 2002 and 2006.
One of the appointees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said to the Associated Press, “I expect the lower house to be more effective in questioning ministers, but I doubt its ability to introduce any constitutional amendment,” referring to one of the key demands raised by the opposition.
But Saturday’s most closely watched contests pit four liberal candidates versus hardline Sunnis of the Muslim Brotherhood or extremist Salafist movement.
The al-Wefaq party has thrown its support behind the liberals, three of whom must win for the Shiites to control parliament. But analysts say the progressive candidates are being hurt by ideological ties with Washington. Results are expected Sunday.