Manama: Bahrainis began voting on Saturday for the third time since reforms which turned the Gulf state into a constitutional monarchy, as the Shi’ite majority demands an easing of the Sunni dynasty`s grip on power.
People were queuing up outside polling stations soon after they opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) for 12 hours of voting, state television reported from several locations.
"They should increase salaries and reduce unemployment," one voter, Ali Qassab, said outside a polling centre in Muharraq, Bahrain`s second largest island after Manama, speaking of his expectations from the new Parliament.
But in an open challenge to the pro-Western Al-Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain since 1783, top Shi’ite cleric and MP Sheikh Ali Salman said ahead of the election that authority should be shared with the people.
"It is unacceptable that power be monopolised by a single family, even one to which we owe respect and consideration," the head of the Shi’ite mainstream Islamic National Accord Association (INAA) told a mass rally.
"We look forward to the day when any child of the people, be they Sunni or Shi`ite, can become prime minister," Salman told a campaign rally on Wednesday in a suburb of Manama.
Despite the reforms passed in a 2001 referendum which restored a parliament dissolved in 1975, King Hamad`s uncle, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, has served as prime minister ever since independence from Britain in 1971.
The archipelago state was plagued in the 1990s by a wave of Shiite-led unrest which has abated since the steps launched to convert the emirate into a constitutional monarchy.
On Wednesday, the cleric roused the crowd as he listed his community`s grievances against a regime accused of discrimination against the Shi`ites and of working to tip the demographic balance by naturalising foreign Sunnis.
The crowd stood up in unison, punching the air with their fists and chanting slogans, in a scene similar to rallies held by Lebanon`s Iran-backed Shi`ite militant movement Hezbollah.
"The Shi`ites of Bahrain are loyal only to Bahrain," Salman later said in a bid to dismiss charges that Bahraini Shi’ites are loyal to co-religionist Iran and serve its interests in the Gulf.
Posters of Hezbollah`s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a principal ally of Iran in the Arab world, have been plastered in Shi’ite neighbourhoods of Manama.
And in the run-up to the legislative and municipal polls, a wave of arrests of Shi`ite political activists has drawn warnings from international human rights watchdogs of a drift back to full-blown authoritarianism.
Bahraini authorities detained 250 Shi`ite opposition activists, London-based watchdog Amnesty International said earlier this month.
On Thursday, Bahrain said Interpol has circulated arrest warrants for two Shi`ite opposition leaders living in London, days before they are due to go on trial in absentia as part of a group of 23 on terror charges.
About 318,000 Bahrainis are eligible to elect the 40-member Parliament, while the king names the members of a 40-strong upper chamber, known as the consultative council.
Parliament has the authority to examine and pass legislation proposed by the king or cabinet and also has monitoring powers, while the consultative council has the power to block legislation coming out of the lower house.
Electoral commission chief Abdullah al-Buainain insisted: "We are determined that the elections should be transparent," adding polling stations would be monitored by 379 observers from Bahraini non-governmental organisations.
The main Shi’ite opposition group, Salman`s INAA, scored a sweeping victory in the 2006 polls, the first in which it took part, grabbing 17 parliamentary seats. Overall, Sunni and Shi’ite Islamists dominated the outgoing Parliament.
Women candidates failed to make an impression, winning only one seat which was unopposed.