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Islamist candidates stampeded to victory in Bahrain's parliamentary election, splitting the vote between hardline Shiite and Sunni Muslims, according to preliminary results announced Sunday.
With several races headed for next week's runoff election, the Saturday's vote appears to have reinforced the sectarian divide between the governing Sunni minority and the island kingdom's underprivileged Shi'ites, whom form some two-thirds of the population.
It also underlines the deepening conservatism in this US ally, which is among the most liberal of Gulf Arab states.
Women and liberal candidates fared poorly. Of 18 women running, only one won outright, Latifa al-Gaoud, who ran unopposed. Another, Munira Fakhro, advanced to the second round and faces a tough race against Salah Ali, a member of the pro-government Muslim Brotherhood, a hardline Sunni Islamist group.
No secular liberal candidates won seats outright. At least four were headed for tough second-round battles against Islamic hard-liners.
The second-round of voting Dec. 2 will decide whether the parliament's 40-member elected chamber will be dominated by pro-government Sunnis or an opposition alliance of Shiites and liberals.
The religious sweep in Bahrain mirror results of elections in Iraq, Egypt and Palestinian territories, where Muslim hard-liners have made inroads.
"It looks like our parliament will be dominated by people who see themselves only as Sunnis or Shiites," said Fowad Shihab, a political science professor at Bahrain University. "These are the same Islamists that are gaining control across the Arab world."
The Shiite al-Wefaq movement, which boycotted the 2002 vote, emerged with 16 seats, by far the best showing of any party. Observers expect al-Wefaq to throw its support behind liberal reform candidates, most of whom were battling opponents from the hardline Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movement.
"The people trusted us and we did well," said al-Wefaq leader Sheik Ali Salman, a Shiite cleric in a rolled white turban and black cloak.
A Shiite-liberal alliance would be expected to press the government for broad reforms to Bahrain's limited democracy, where the ruling Khalifa family controls most levers of power.
The election, Bahrain's third-ever parliamentary vote, captivated the nation and triggered huge but orderly turnout, which the government put at 72 percent of the 300,000 eligible voters.
A rowdy, sometimes dirty campaign featured nightly rallies in hundreds of campaign tents scattered across this island's dusty neighborhoods.
The vote was watched closely by neighboring Arab countries planning similar steps toward democracy, or dealing with their own Shiite populations clamoring for power.
Among Bahrain's neighbors, Kuwait allowed women to vote and run for office for the first time in elections held in June. No female candidates won, but a woman was given a Cabinet post.
Qatar and Oman have held low-level elections and the United Arab Emirates has announced similar plans. Saudi Arabia held municipal elections but, alone among Mideast nations, barred women's participation.
In Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, a sophisticated campaign of dirty tricks and apparent corruption was unable to block Shiite victories, but did appear to hurt women and liberal candidates.
In September, leaked documents depicted an alleged government scheme to weaken the country's long-oppressed Shiites. The government denied the charges.
Voting bore signs of official corruption, with scattered reports of ballot shortages, computer glitches and allegations of foreigners handed Bahraini citizenship in exchange for backing the government.
But Information Minister Mohammed Abdel Ghaffar said Saturday that small incidents were bound to happen, but said he was unaware of any major voting violations. Foreign observers were banned from monitoring the polls.
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