MANAMA, (Reuters) – Tensions were high on Friday ahead of Bahrain’s parliamentary elections with the leader of the Shi’ite Muslim opposition warning the Sunni-led authorities that any attempt to rig the vote would be vigorously opposed.
Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the al-Wefaq National Islamic Society — the largest opposition group which represents the kingdom’s majority Shi’ites — said his group would know Saturday’s polls were rigged if it did not win 13 of parliament’s 40 seats.
“According to detailed indicators it would be impossible to win less than 13 seats … Rigging the elections will not be accepted. All means of protest are open,” Salman told Reuters in an interview.
“The nation needs urgent care. More than 40 percent of Bahrainis are living below the poverty line,” he said.
The polls, taking place against a backdrop of Sunni-Shi’ite tension in neighbouring Iraq, are the first to be contested by al-Wefaq in Bahrain, where the Shi’ites make up 60 percent of the 650,000 population.
About 2,000 protesters chanting “Down, down with the government” gathered in the capital Manama, demanding an investigation into alleged election irregularities.
Protesters, both Sunnis and Shi’ites, led by clerics of both persuasions, demanded a probe into claims of election irregularities by former government adviser Salah al-Bander, who was deported in September for what authorities said was fomenting civil strife. “We demand an international investigation into Bandergate,” one banner read, referring to the affair.
Al-Wefaq is contesting 17 of 40 parliamentary seats, and 23 of the 40 municipal seats. It boycotted polls in 2002 to protest against constitutional changes that granted a state-appointed council equal legislative powers to the elected assembly.
Shi’ite demands for more power, the end of government inequalities and discrimination in jobs and services, have in the past led to unrest, arrests, exile and clashes with police.
Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family and since coming to power in 1999, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has introduced some reforms, including pardoning political prisoners and exiles in the pro-Western country, headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Bahrain bristled with billboards on the eve of the polls, featuring candidates ranging from bearded Muslim fundamentalist men to liberal women with uncovered hair.
Most candidates, Sunni and Shi’ite, are promising more jobs, more housing and better education. The Shi’ites are also campaigning against what they say is a state campaign to award citizenship to thousands of Sunnis from other countries to weaken Shi’ite influence in the tiny kingdom. “Naturalisation. This is the number one issue. This is what’s causing the lack of jobs, housing and decent pay,” said Shi’ite Nasser Ahmed, who lives in a run-down Shi’ite district.
The government says it has naturalised relatively few foreigners, and Shi’ites were well represented among them.
A report published in September by Bander, alleging election irregularities, has fuelled Shi’ite mistrust of the government.
Many Sunnis welcomed Shi’ite participation in the polls, and many Shi’ites said they did not want a repeat of the political unrest that convulsed Bahrain in the 1980’s and 90’s. “The biggest deficiency in the last (2002) polls was Shi’ite boycott. This allowed unsuitable people to get into parliament because there was no competition,” said Rashid Rahman, a Sunni at the campaign tent of a Sunni candidate. “Sectarianism in some areas is strong. It’s terrible,” he said.
Many Bahrainis said they did not care about the elections at all, saying that 2002 polls brought little change, and the fact that all legislation must be approved by the king and unelected politicians meant 2006 polls were unlikely to matter either.