MANAMA, Bahrain - Bahrain’s Sunni rulers are practicing “fake democracy,’’ the Persian Gulf kingdom’s leading Shi’ite cleric said yesterday as opposition groups called for a boycott of weekend parliamentary elections and for stepped-up protests for greater rights.
The voting today centers on 18 Parliament seats abandoned by Shi’ite lawmakers six months ago to protest crackdowns on antigovernment demonstrations. Shi’ite-led groups have called for demonstrations to press demands for more freedoms from the Sunni monarchy that has ruled the tiny but strategically important Gulf island for more than 200 years.
The calls yesterday for dissent included marching to Manama’s Pearl Square, the former epicenter of Bahrain’s uprising, which erupted in February as crowds drew inspiration from Arab revolts elsewhere.
Bahraini authorities have stepped up pressure on antigovernment activists before the elections, threatening jail for those who use social media and websites to urge acts of dissent.
“There is a class of society under repression and there are obstacles at every turn, blocking their voice,’’ Sheik Isa Qassim said yesterday at a mosque in Diraz, an opposition stronghold northwest of Manama, the capital.
“This is fake democracy,’’ Qassim said.
The government has criticized calls for an election boycott and said those refusing to vote aim to stall political reform in Bahrain.
Shi’ites make up a majority of Bahrain’s residents, but they have long complained of discrimination by the country’s ruling Sunni dynasty and of a lack of economic opportunities.
More than 30 people have died since the protests started in Bahrain, which is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Hundreds of activists have been detained and brought to trial on antistate charges in a special security court since March, when Bahrain’s rulers imposed martial law and invited a Saudi-led Gulf military force to help deal with the dissent.
Bahrain lifted emergency rule in June.