Bahrain Shi’ites seek a boost in Parliament
Irregularities are already alleged in voting process
MANAMA, Bahrain — Voters in the island kingdom of Bahrain picked their new Parliament under tight security yesterday, with a Shi’ite majority seeking a show of strength after a sweeping crackdown by Sunni rulers. However, allegations about voting problems were raised before the ballots were even counted.
The complaints — which include hundreds of Shi’ites reportedly blocked from voting — could complicate hopes of cooling tensions after waves of arrests and street clashes since summer in this key Western ally.
The outcome of the vote is likely to resonate well beyond the 40-seat chamber at stake, and could touch on the long-term stability of Bahrain, a strategic US partner. As home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the island nation is a centerpiece of Washington’s efforts to confront Iran’s military expansion in the Gulf.
The latest unrest is part of discord that has simmered for decades in tiny Bahrain: Shi’ites pushing for a greater political voice and the ruling Sunni dynasty trying to protect its control and place among the Sunni Arab clans that dominate the Gulf.
US officials have toed a careful line. They count on Bahrain’s leaders as reliable friends — particularly for their tough stance on Iran — but also worry that the heavy-handed tactics against perceived dissidents could leave the country sharply divided and difficult to govern.
Parliament has only limited powers and can be overruled by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his inner circle. For many Shi’ites, gaining more seats and possibly taking a majority is seen as a message not to ignore their demands for a greater say in how the country is run.
“Bahrain has the potential to turn really nasty,’’ said Christopher Davidson, a professor at the University of Durham in Britain, who has written extensively about the region. “There is a widening wealth gap between rich and poor and is just so happens that the rich are the Sunni leaders and the poor are the Shi’ites.’’
Less than an hour before voting closed, the head of the largest Shi’ite bloc lodged allegations of irregularities.
Sheik Ali Salman, head of the Al Wefaq party, contends that at least 890 voters were turned away from polling stations in mostly Shi’ite areas because their names were not on electoral lists. Even small numbers of votes are crucial in a country with fewer than 319,000 eligible voters.
“This is not the full number,’’ Salman said at a press conference. “We expect it to be higher.’’
In an attempt to preempt vote rigging, Al Wefaq supporters also set up tables outside voting stations to tally voters who said they backed the party’s candidates. The lists would be used for any possible challenges to the official results, due today.
In the last election in 2006, the vote was marred by allegations of irregularities. Sunni authorities rejected those charges and pro-government candidates took control of Parliament.
Bahraini officials did not comment on the latest protests about voting troubles. But Bahrain’s prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, described the voting as fair and an “utter democratic success.’’
Since August, Bahrain’s rulers have waged a campaign of arrests and intimidation against suspected Shi’ite opponents, contending that they seek to undermine the ruling system and could open to the door for Shi’ite powerhouse Iran to exert influence in the heart of the Arab Gulf.
Shi’ites in Bahrain, meanwhile, say they seek only greater rights and opportunities after being shut out from key decision-making roles in the country.
More than 250 people have been detained, and Shi’ite protesters have fought back with sporadic street clashes.