Bahrain election overshadowed by opposition boycott



Manama, Bahrain, Taieb Mahjoub- Bahrain voted Saturday in its first legislative election since security forces crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 2011, with the opposition boycotting the poll they see as a farce.
The tiny Gulf state and key US ally remains divided nearly four years after security forces in the Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdom crushed Arab Spring-inspired protests led by majority Shiites.



Al-Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group which withdrew its 17 lawmakers after the crackdown, warned on Saturday that failure by Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty to ease their "monopoly" on power could trigger a surge in violence.
In the Shiite village of Sanabes, west of Manama, clashes erupted between youths and security forces in the afternoon, an AFP reporter said.
Security forces fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, some of whom were masked and armed with petrol bombs.
Voting closed at 1900 GMT after a two-hour extension decided by the electoral commission, in a likely bid to boost turnout amid reports that many Shiites had heeded the boycott call.
But an hour later the head of the commission, Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa, who is also justice minister, said initial estimates showed 51.5 percent of registered voters turned out to vote.
"Turnout for the legislative elections was 51.5 percent... (and this result) puts an end to confessionalism in Bahrain," he said in reference to Shiite-led opposition's boycott call.
Almost 350,000 Bahrainis had been called to elect a 40-member parliament, with most of the 266 candidates Sunnis.
The vote has been denounced as a farce by critics of the government.
The boycott made turnout a key marker for the validity of the vote, which comes nearly four years after authorities stamped out a month-long uprising calling for democratic reform.
- Sham polls -
Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets on the eve of the vote in the Shiite village of Diraz shouting "Boycott, Boycott", with police firing tear gas to disperse them.
There were confrontations again Saturday in Sanabes and other Shiite villages around Bahrain, witnesses said, and plumes of smoke were seen rising from at least three districts.
In some villages, AFP reporters saw downed trees, concrete blocks and burnt rubbish bins authorities said were aimed at preventing people from going to vote.
"The elections have no meaning," said Yassin, 35 and unemployed.
Umm Hussein, a woman draped in black, said "it's a farce," describing the boycott as a "success".
In Sunni-dominated districts like Rifaa, in south Manama, where dozens of voters, mostly men, lined up outside pollings stations from early morning.
"This election will help the development of the country under the leadership of the king," said Naima El-Heddi, a civil servant in her 30s.
- Reform demands -
Political rivals have struggled to bury their differences through a so-called "national dialogue" that fell apart despite several rounds of negotiations.
Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman said the lack of accord could lead to an "explosion" of unrest in Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and a partner in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
The boycott stems from "the people's demand for democratic reforms," Salman told AFP.
The opposition wants a "real" constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister independent from the Al-Khalifa royal family -- a demand rejected by the Sunni dynasty in majority Shiite Bahrain.
In October, a court banned Al-Wefaq for three months for violating a law on associations.
The movement refused to resume talks with the authorities in September despite a new proposal announced by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.
Information Minister Samira Rajab stressed ahead of the polls that the government would not tolerate "chaos, unrest and foreign meddling" -- a reference to Shiite Iran.
Authorities ignored pleas by human rights groups last year to release political prisoners, instead increasing the punishment for violent crimes.
At least 89 people are estimated to have been killed and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the uprising began in February 2011.
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Sunday, November 23rd 2014
Taieb Mahjoub
           


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