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Bahrain holds vote, tension still simmering

Sep 24, 2011, 8:37 a.m.
A Bahraini woman casts her vote during a by-election, at a voting station in Bahrain City Center, Manama September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

By Andrew Hammond

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

The low turn-out of voters would appear to favor pro-government candidates in the Gulf island state, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

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."

Shi'ites, who form Bahrain's majority 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 was boycotting Saturday's election, saying that government efforts at reconciliation failed to address the Shi'ites' grievances.

Four candidates out of the 18 were uncontested so Saturday's vote is 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 turned out 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 see 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 Wefaq member who resigned in February over deaths of protesters and was jailed for several months, said the low turnout wasn't because of the boycott.

"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 centers," Matar said.

"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."

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

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