Spring election offers hope for Bahrainis

Bahraini Sunni women in Riffa vote in the first elections since 2010. Picture: Getty

Bahraini Sunni women in Riffa vote in the first elections since 2010. Picture: Getty

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Four years have passed since Arab-Spring inspired protests first visited Bahrain, and time continues to prove a slow ­healer in the Persian Gulf ­island kingdom.

The jails remain occupied, political groups distrust each other to the extent they won’t participate in talks, religion as ever is instrumental.

But yesterday there were signs of hope.

The voting booths finally opened for both the parliamentary and municipal elections despite weeks of stalling and threatened boycotts.

For the most part, voters were said to have been turning out in their droves, with long queues reported in some areas, and attempts to block roads facing would-be voters in others.

And if ever anyone needs an explanation of how divided and complex political divisions are in Bahrain, they only have to look at the long list of those hoping for office.

Some 419 candidates are running, 266 for parliamentary seats and 153 in municipal council elections, seeking to win the backing of an electorate numbering about 350,000 from a population of about 1.3 million people.

Regardless of who wins, the results will mark only the next chapter in the island’s history.

No-one expects them to quickly resolve political turmoil in the kingdom, where the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa family rules over a population that is mostly Shiite Muslim.

Bahrain has been shaken by low-level unrest since Shiite protesters took to the streets in February 2011 asking for greater democracy. Reconciliation talks between the al-Khalifa family and the opposition were revived early this year but later appeared to stall ­following the prosecution of opposition officials on various charges.

Several opposition supporters remain behind bars following convictions related to the 2011 unrest, and prominent rights activists are awaiting verdicts on charges they say are politically motivated.

Al-Wefaq, the main opposition in Bahrain, is boycotting the elections along with three other groups.

Al-Wefaq has said it will not take part because parliament would not have enough power and because voting districts favour Sunni Muslims.

Yet yesterday there was hope. Despite the boycott, polling stations were busy in the mostly Sunni Riffa district south of capital, Manama, with long queues from early morning. In the Shiite village of Sanabis to the west of Manama, however, rocks and stones were scattered in the middle of the street in an attempt to block traffic and prevent voters from reaching polling ­stations.

Al-Wefaq, which has strong links to Bahrain’s Shiite majority, won 18 out of 40 parliamentary seats in a 2010 election, but it pulled out of parliament a year later during a crackdown against mostly Shiite protesters in the February 2011 demonstrations.

In late October, a court ruled in favour of suspending the activities of al-Wefaq for three months in a court case brought by the government against the organisation in July, alleging that it had broken the law.

Bahrain, an ally of neighbouring Sunni monarchy ­Saudi Arabia and home to the US Fifth Fleet, accuses Shiite Gulf power Iran of stirring up unrest and says it has made many reforms since 2011.

Iran denies those charges.

The elections will determine the make-up of the lower house of parliament, which has limited direct powers but is symbolically important as part of political reforms begun more than a decade ago.

Members of the upper house are appointed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, whose ­family controls most senior government posts, including that of the unelected prime minister.

A number of candidates have faced intimidation, with several having their cars and campaign facilities torched.

The elections are being watched closely by Bahrain’s Gulf Arab neighbours and the United States in particular.

Initial results are expected today.

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