Manama: After months of street
unrest, voters in the island kingdom of Bahrain were choosing
a new parliament on Saturday that could challenge the ruling Sunni
dynasty`s sweeping crackdown on majority Shiites.
To do that, the Shiite-led political opposition will have
to overcome what it says are government attempts to stack the
deck against it through election tampering. And even then, the
40-seat parliament has limited powers, making it little more
than a potential forum for demanding more accountability if
Shiites do make a strong showing.
The tension roiling Bahrain, a key American ally that is
home to the US Navy`s 5th Fleet, began in August when security
forces carried out a wave of arrests against prominent Shiite
activists and supporters accused of trying to destabilise the
country. More than 250 people have been detained.
The crackdown touched off streets riots and an outcry
from international rights groups. That prompted an even
harsher response from authorities: strict oversight of Shiite
mosques and charges of coup plotting against 23 Shiites,
including several well-known opposition figures.
Bahrain`s majority Shiites say they only seek greater
rights for a marginalised community.
The first election results are expected hours after polls
Four years ago, the vote was marred by allegations of
irregularities. The authorities rejected those claims.
This time, the accusations are the same. Opposition
groups complain about the lack of international election
monitors and districts allegedly gerrymandered to undercut the
Shiites` population advantage.
Bahrain is one of the few Arab nations with a Shiite
majority, though it is dominated by Sunnis, like Iraq was
under Saddam Hussein.
A flier by the largest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, is shaped
like a hand signalling halt to protest "political
naturalisations", a reference to a population-boosting
programme that has offered Bahraini passports to thousands of
Sunnis from Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Mideast states.