Bahrain's Shi'ites turn to ballots after crackdowns

Bahraini authorities are not allowing int'l election monitors, adding to worries among Shi'ites of possible vote rigging to undercut their candidates.

Bahrain elections 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Bahrain elections 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Bahrain — After facing of months of crackdowns, Shi'ite leaders in the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain awaited results Sunday from parliamentary elections they hoped would be a show of strength against Sunni rulers. But early allegations of voting problems pointed to possible challenges to the outcome in this key Western ally.
The claims — which included hundreds of Shi'ites reportedly being blocked from voting — could complicate hopes of cooling tensions after waves of arrests and street clashes between majority Shi'ites who claim widespread discrimination and the Sunni leadership seeking to maintain its grip.
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The voting Saturday was likely to resonate well beyond the 40-seat chamber at stake, and could touch on the long-term stability of Bahrain, a strategic American partner. As home of the US Navy's 5th Fleet, the island nation is a centerpiece of Washington's efforts to confront Iran's military expansion in the Gulf.
The latest unrest was 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.
The parliament has only limited powers and can be overruled by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his inner circle. For many Shi'ites, however, gaining more seats — and possibly even 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, claimed 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 told a news conference. "We expect it to be higher."
Al Wefaq supporters also set up tables outside voting stations to tally up voters who said they backed the party's candidates. The lists will be used for any possible challenges to the official results.
In the last election in 2006, the vote also was marred by allegations of irregularities. Sunni authorities rejected those claims and pro-government candidates took control of parliament.
Bahraini officials did not immediately comment on the latest claims of voting troubles. But Bahrain's justice minister, Sheik Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa, expected "only a number of infringements" and hailed the voting as fair.
Elections officials said voter turnout was 67 percent. That compares with 72 percent turnout in 2006 — possibly evidence of a boycott call by some Shi'ite leaders. Bahrain is one of the few Arab nations with a Shi'ite majority, though it is dominated by Sunnis.
Bahrain authorities, however, have not allowed international election monitors, adding to worries among Shi'ites of possible vote rigging to undercut their candidates.
The voting also comes before a highly sensitive trial next week for 23 Shi'ite activists accused of plotting a coup. Pro-government crews have canvassed Bahrain trying to paint over graffiti condemning the crackdown or showing stenciled images of leading opposition figures.
Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, promised that the trial would be open to the public.