Bahrain heads to polls without opposition candidates

Bahraini poll clerks prepare ballot boxes at a polling station on the island of Muharraq, north of the capital Manama, during parliamentary elections, on November 12, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Bahrainis headed to the polls Saturday but a ban on opposition candidates means the elections will bring no meaningful change despite a record number of people vying for seats, rights groups said.اضافة اعلان

More than 330 candidates, including a record 73 women, are competing to join the 40-seat council of representatives — the lower house of parliament that advises King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who has ruled since his father died in March 1999.

This is up from the 293 people — including 41 women — who ran for parliament in the last election in 2018.

Lines formed outside some of the kingdom’s 55 polling stations before they opened at 8am (0500 GMT).

Amina Issa, head of a polling station in Manama, said turnout was “intense since the first hours, and the numbers are steadily increasing”.

But the country, ruled by a Sunni dynasty, has barred its two main opposition groups from fielding candidates — the Shiite Al-Wefaq and secular Waad parties which were dissolved in 2016 and 2017.

“This election will not introduce any change,” said Ali Abdulemam, a UK-based Bahraini human rights activist.

“Without the opposition we will not have a healthy country,” he told AFP.

The elections come more than a decade after a 2011 crackdown on Shiite-led protesters demanding political reforms.

Since then, authorities have imprisoned hundreds of dissidents — including Al-Wefaq’s leader Sheikh Ali Salman — and stripped many of their citizenship.

Official websites hacked

Amnesty International said this week elections would be held in an “environment of political repression”.

A government spokesperson pushed back against that criticism on Saturday, saying in a statement that Bahrain was a “vibrant democracy”.

“The exercise of political rights in Bahrain is protected by the constitution, barring cases where nomination requirements are not met — this is standard practice in all democratic countries,” the spokesperson said.

“Requirements include not having a criminal record or not belonging to a society dissolved due to their court-proven involvement in acts of violence in contravention of legitimate political activity.”

The spokesperson added: “The right to vote too is also a constitutional right, but not an obligation. No one is penalized for choosing not to vote.”

A hacking operation on Friday targeted the official elections website as well as websites for parliament and the state news agency, though all three were restored by Saturday afternoon.

The interior ministry said on Twitter the sites were “targeted to hinder the elections and circulate negative messages in desperate attempts” to discourage voting.

The identity of the hackers was not immediately clear.

Nearly 350,000 people are eligible to vote Saturday. Polling stations are due to close at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT)

“The atmosphere is good. I didn’t wait in line for more than 10 minutes,” said Nouf Ibrahim, a mother of three in the capital Manama.

Justice Minister Nawaf bin Mohammed Al-Maawda said voting was “running smoothly”.

Strategic ally

In 2018, Bahrain passed so-called political and civil isolation laws, barring former opposition party members from running for parliament and sitting on the boards of civil organizations.

Citing Bahraini civil society figures, Human Rights Watch in October said the retroactive bans have affected between 6,000 and 11,000 Bahraini citizens.

The elections “offer little hope for any freer and fairer outcomes,” HRW said.

The latest vote comes less than a week after Pope Francis concluded a landmark visit that aimed to promote interfaith dialogue — his second to a Gulf nation following a 2019 trip to the UAE.

Without singling out specific countries, the pontiff during his visit urged respect for human rights, saying it is vital they are “not violated but promoted”.

Home to 1.4 million people, Bahrain is made up of one large island and around 34 smaller ones situated off the east coast of Saudi Arabia, to which it is connected by a causeway. At just it is the smallest country in the Middle East.

Located just across the Gulf from Iran, the island state is a strategic Western ally and normalized ties with Israel in 2020. It hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, with around 7,800 US military personnel deployed in the country.

In 2018, Britain opened its first permanent military base in the Middle East since 1971, near Bahrain’s capital Manama where it deploys around 300 troops.

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