Protests erupt as Bahrain goes to the polls

Elections were to fill seats vacated by Shi’ite lawmakers during uprising
Protests erupt as Bahrain goes to the polls
A Bahraini man votes at a polling station in the capital Manama on September 24, 2011
By Reuters
Sun 25 Sep 2011 08:45 AM

Bahrain's
main opposition boycotted elections on Saturday held to fill parliamentary
seats vacated by its members during a crackdown on a mostly Muslim Shi'ite
protest movement in the Sunni-ruled monarchy.

The low
turnout by Shi'ite voters and lack of prominent Shi'ite candidates appeared to
favour pro-government candidates who previously would have met stiffer
competition in districts of the Gulf island state, home to the US Navy's Fifth
Fleet.

The
Shi'ite enclave of Sanabis adjacent to the capital of Manama was the scene of
protests for a second night, with youths taunting police, blowing vuvuzela
trumpets and shouting anti-government chants.

Police
responded with rubber bullets and stun grenades, according to a Reuters
witness.

Shi'ites,
who form Bahrain's biggest community, took to the streets in February to demand
more representation and access to jobs and benefits.

At least
30 people were killed, hundreds wounded and more than 1,000 detained in a
government crackdown backed by troops brought in from Saudi Arabia and the
United Arab Emirates.

The
Wefaq opposition reacted by quitting 18 of the 20 seats in parliament and
boycotted Saturday's election, saying government efforts at reconciliation
failed to address Shi'ite grievances.

Jalil
al-Alli, one of two candidates running for a seat in the Shi'ite town of Saar,
said he was standing because it was "better to work with the system than
not".

"I
felt that running would be in the interests of the people. We need to monitor
ministers and tackle issues like unemployment," he said.

Four out
of the 18 seats were uncontested so Saturday's vote was for 14 seats in a
parliament with limited powers.

"I
don't think Bahrain is ready for a stronger parliament," said candidate
Jamal Saleh, a Sunni Muslim, who was at a polling station in a shopping mall in
a pro-opposition district.

The
presiding judge at the polling station, Amal Ahmed Abdul, said voter turnout
was lower than usual but those who had gone to the polls were enthusiastic.

"People
are insisting on their right to vote even if they don't find their name on the
list," Abdul said. "They are going back to officials and
investigating to make sure there is a place they can vote."

Despite
its Shi'ite majority, Bahrain is governed by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty,
which allies Saudi Arabia and the United States regard as a bulwark against the
regional influence of Shi'ite power Iran.

Bahrain's
parliament has limited powers as its bills need to pass an upper house whose
members are appointed by the king. Ultimate power in the country rests with the
ruling family.

Matar
Matar, a member of the Shi'ite al Wefaq political bloc, said the low turnout
was not due to the boycott but frustration over the situation in Bahrain. He
resigned from parliament in February over the deaths of protesters and was
jailed for several months.

"It's
more to do with the atmosphere where people are angry about ongoing violations,
excessive use of force with protesters, dismissals from work, difficulties
getting wounded protesters to health centres," Matar said.

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"All
these seats were Wefaq seats and these people will fill the void but lack
credibility. The authorities will say they reflect the silent majority but they
are in denial. This election is just making the country's crisis worse."

The
government said it expected voter turnout to be better than the 15 percent
predicted by Wefaq, but had yet to tally the final vote count or results. Final
figures are expected within the next few days.

The
justice minister admitted there was more work to be done to restore peace in
the country.

"We
are not in a political crisis but we have a problem in Bahrain and the main
issue is how to go forward," Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ali
al-Khalifa told reporters.

On the
eve of the election, police blocked protesters trying to march to the capital
Manama, cutting off roads to Sanabis and Bahrain Financial Harbour, which flank
the central roundabout that was the centre of protests seven months ago.

Earlier,
Sanabis had been littered with debris and riot police were present in large
numbers.

"We
don't believe in this election, so we've been trying to protest since yesterday,"
said a woman who gave her name as Umm Haider.

In a
speech on Friday, Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman likened the protest movement
to those that have swept other Arab countries this year.

"The
conflict in Bahrain is between those who want freedom and democracy and those
who support dictatorship, as is the case in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and
Syria," he said. "Our demands are for freedom and justice, and if we
achieve that, it will be for the better of citizens - Sunnis and Shia."

Since
the height of the unrest the government has struggled to restore its image as a
business-friendly Gulf hub, launching a national dialogue in July to discuss
reforms.

Based on
the talks, King Hamad agreed to expand the elected lower house's powers of
scrutiny. But the appointed upper council, the Shura, was left untouched.

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