Bahrainis vote on Saturday in a parliamentary election from which opposition groups have been barred in a crackdown on dissent in the Western-allied kingdom as tensions with the Shi’ite Muslim opposition show no signs of abating.
Activists have called for a boycott of what they describe as “farce” elections, raising doubts about the credibility of the polls. The government says the elections are democratic.
Bahrain’s Sunni-Muslim ruling Al Khalifa family has kept a lid on dissent since the Shi’ite opposition staged a failed uprising in 2011. Saudi Arabia sent in troops to help crush the unrest in a mark of concern that any power-sharing concession by Bahrain could inspire Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite minority.
Riyadh regards the neighboring island nation, which does not possess vast oil wealth like other Persian Gulf states, as a critical ally in its proxy wars with Iran in the Middle East.
Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has closed the main opposition groups, barred their members from running in elections and prosecuted scores of people, many described by human rights groups as activists, in mass trials.
“Clearly, legislatures from the world’s leading democratic states believe that the upcoming election in Bahrain lacks legitimacy. You simply cannot crush, torture and imprison your entire opposition, call for a pseudo-election, and then demand the respect of the international community,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).
The government said 506 candidates are running in the election, including the highest number of female candidates. It expects a higher voter turnout than in 2014, which it put at 53 percent, when opposition groups boycotted the elections.
Only 23, out of 40 incumbents of the House of Representatives, are seeking re-election this year to parliament, which has limited powers.
Many of Bahrain’s Shi’ites say they are deprived of jobs and government services and treated as second class citizens in the country of 1.5 million.