MANAMA,(Reuters) – Bahrainis voted in national elections on Saturday with the majority Shi’ite Muslim opposition taking part for the first time after a 2002 poll boycott, although it alleged some voting irregularities.
Election officials overseeing the parliamentary and municipal elections in the small, pro-Western Gulf kingdom have denied charges of any irregularities and say those who question the polls without proof will be prosecuted.
Sheikh Ali Salman, head of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society that represents majority Shi’ites, says his group would know the polls were rigged if it did not win 13 of parliament’s 40 seats in line with pre-poll soundings.
Speaking as he cast his ballot on Saturday, Salman said: “I’m still anxious about the transparency of these elections.”
Wefaq has warned Sunni-led authorities regarding any fraud, and even before the end of voting it reported some alleged irregularity. “If an old or illiterate person comes, they are supposed to go to the judge for help and some of these judges are not ticking the candidates wanted by the voter,” said Faheem Abdulla, Wefaq’s media official.
Taking place against a backdrop of Sunni-Shi’ite tension in nearby Iraq, the polls are the first to be contested by Wefaq in the island state of 650,000 which is around 60 percent Shi’ite. It boycotted the 2002 polls in protest at constitutional changes granting a state-appointed council equal legislative rights to the elected assembly.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, is ruled by a Sunni family. Since taking office in 1999, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has introduced reform, pardoning political prisoners.
Many Sunnis welcomed Shi’ite participation in the polls and Bahrainis do not want a repeat of political unrest that gripped their country in the 1980s and 90s.
“These elections are ending the issue of sectarianism. A Sunni or Shi’ite candidate would serve us all,” said voter Sheikha Hasan Maydan. “What happened in Iraq should not be allowed to happen here. We would be making a grave error to vote for someone because they are Sunni or Shi’ite.”
Election officials predicted a turnout of above 60 percent. Voters were in high spirits at packed poll stations. “This year there has been a political awakening,” said voter Mansour Kazem.
Murtadha Bader, a Shi’ite who was voting for liberal Sunni woman candidate Munira Fakhro, concurred. “Bahrainis have chosen change. The nation has chosen to change the political map,” said Bader, a Wefaq supporter.
Other Bahrainis however, have said they did not care about the vote because 2002 polls brought little change. They said that since all laws must be approved by the king and unelected officials, Saturday’s elections were unlikely to matter either.
Voting takes place a day after youths gathered in a poor Shi’ite area of the capital, burning tyres and stopping traffic. Earlier, about 2,000 protesters chanting “down, down with the government” gathered in central Manama.
Protesters, Sunni and Shi’ite, demanded a probe into allegations of election irregularities in a report by former government adviser Salah al-Bander, who was deported in September for what authorities said was fomenting civil strife.
Shi’ites also protested against what they say is a state move to award citizenship to thousands of Sunnis from other countries to weaken Shi’ite influence.
The government says it has naturalised relatively few foreigners, and Shi’ites were well represented among them.