Bahrain votes for new parliament but Shiite-dominated opposition absent
Polls opened in Bahrain today to elect a new parliament, but absent from the ballot is the Shiite-dominated opposition, whose most prominent figures are serving lengthy prison sentences. Up for grabs are 40 seats in Bahrain's Lower House of Parliament and 30 municipal council seats. It's the second election in Bahrain since mass protests led by the country's Shiite majority erupted in early 2011.
The government, which is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, crushed the Arab Spring-inspired protests with help from Saudi and Emirati forces, but Shiite youth continue to hold street protests. Rights groups say today's vote is taking place in a repressive environment. Just before Bahrain held its last parliamentary elections in 2014, the country's largest opposition bloc, Al-Wefaq, was suspended.
Fourteen Shiite candidates won seats in parliamentary elections in 2014, which were boycotted by much of the Shiite-dominated opposition. Since then, Al-Wefaq (the political party) has been ordered dissolved and its leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, has been sentenced to life in prison. Courts also dissolved the secular Waad group and closed the last independent newspaper in the country, Al-Wasat.
Just this month, prosecutors detained and charged a former lawmaker for expressing his intention on Twitter to boycott the elections. More than 100 Bahrainis have been stripped of their nationality in recent years, forced to take up residence in Iraq and other countries.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that in June, King Hamad signed legislation banning anyone who belonged to a dissolved political organization or who was previously convicted and sentenced to more than six months in prison from running for political office. "Bahrain is failing to create the conditions necessary for a free election," said Lama Fakih, Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch.
The government has defended the election as free and fair, saying the vote is being monitored by the judiciary and local civil society groups. The state-run media carried a report saying those barred from running had been found guilty of violating the law. It accused some barred groups of receiving support from Iran and Qatar, which Bahrain has repeatedly accused of sowing instability.
Bahrain is home to some 1.4 million people. About half of them are Bahraini citizens and the majority of them are Shiite. There are over 365,400 eligible voters. The country has been ruled since the 1780s by the Al Khalifa family. King Hamad, who took the throne in 1999, initially took steps to move the country from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one.