Bahrain opposition united by ballot abuse worries

AP News
Posted: Oct 22, 2010 3:37 PM
Bahrain opposition united by ballot abuse worries

When officials released the voter lists for Saturday's parliamentary election in Bahrain, one opposition candidate noticed something very odd about block 718 in her district outside the capital Manama.

There were nearly 150 names, Muneera Fakhro said in an interview Friday. But the land is empty except for a gas station and a driving school.

"And authorities ask us why we are worried about possible vote manipulation," said Fahkro, a retired professor who is trying to become the first woman to win a seat in parliament outside the government fold. "We just say, 'Block 718.'"

A challenge by her supporters earlier this month forced authorities to revise the block's voter count down to zero. Yet she and many other top opposition candidates _ led by Shiites _ openly express concern that the country's Sunni leaders could stack the deck against them after months of unrest and a widespread crackdown on alleged dissident.

Such claims are not new to the tiny Gulf kingdom _ a strategic American ally and home of the U.S. 5th Fleet _ where a Shiite majority is ruled by a Sunni dynasty.

Four years ago, the vote was marred by allegations of voting irregularities for the 40-seat parliament. The authorities rejected those claims.

This time, the accusations are the same. Opposition groups complain about the lack of international election monitors and districts allegedly gerrymandered to undercut the Shiites' population advantage.

A flier by the largest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, is shaped like a hand signaling halt to protest "political naturalizations" _ a reference to a population-boosting program that has offered Bahraini passports to thousands of Sunnis from Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Mideast states. The opposition groups worry that authorities can easily sway the voting of the new citizens, who often are given roles in the military or security forces.

Bahraini authorities strongly dismiss fears the voting will be anything but fair. They say more than 290 local election monitors will be dispatched around the country and webcams will offer streaming video from polling stations to the election website.

Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, said international monitors are "only needed for countries that have faulty election procedures, not like Bahrain."

A top election overseer, Hameed Habeeb, said clean-voting procedures will be followed "to the very last detail."

But security forces also were boosting their presence on the eve of the vote. In one Shiite district in western Bahrain, police set up a checkpoint and checked IDs inside every car.

U.S. officials have held nearly nonstop talks with Bahrain's leaders since August, when security forces began a wave of arrests against prominent Shiite activists and supporters. More than 250 people have been detained.

The crackdown touched off streets riots and an outcry from international rights groups. That prompted an even harsher response from authorities: Ordering strict oversight of Shiite mosques and charges of coup plotting against 23 Shiites, including several well-known opposition figures.

In her run for office, Fakhro has had to push back against Bahrain's establishment.

Her campaign motto, "Enough of corruption," was banned by the country's rulers, but Fakhro, who holds a doctorate in social policy from Columbia University, fought back and won on a court appeal.

At her last campaign rally, Fakhro cited the victory for the slogan as a "small sign" that she has a chance. She claims that she was a victim of vote rigging four years ago that cost her a seat in parliament _ which has very limited powers but can serve as a forum to challenge the ruling system.

"We know that this is a powerless, useless parliament," she told The Associated Press. "But it's all we have now. We can't just sit back and do nothing."

Fakhro occupies a rare niche in Bahrain's political universe.

She is Sunni, but receives considerable support from Shiite groups and clerics. She identifies herself as liberal in a country heavily influenced by conservative Islamic views.

And she's perhaps the best hope for the opposition to have a woman among their ranks in parliament. There is just one woman in the outgoing chamber _ a pro-government member who is assured re-election because no challengers emerged in her district.

Fakhro, who recently retired as associate professor at the University of Bahrain, has campaigned in the past to draw attention to issues such as domestic violence against Arab women. But her recent campaign also has stressed fiscal issues such as Sunni sheiks allegedly gobbling up public lands in a country of about 530,000 and no bigger in area than New York City.

"This is not money laundering. It's land laundering ... It's how it is here. The oligarchy has the money, the power, the control of the executive and the judicial," she said.

Some Shiite leaders have called for a boycott to protest the government clampdowns. Many others, however, have urged a strong response at the polls and against news restrictions.

At Friday's prayers in the downtrodden district of Doraz _ one of the centers of the summer clashes _ a highly respected Shiite imam, Sheik Isa Ahmad Qassim, blamed the leaders for trying to bring sectarian divisions.

"The people don't see divisions between Sunnis and Shiites," he told a packed mosque, which was plastered with photocopied portraits of some of the jailed Shiite activists. "It's the officials in the country that want us to see divisions."

When he was done, some political activists began sending out snippets of his sermon by BlackBerry messages.