Bahrain Shiites retain chamber seats after vote

AP News
Posted: Oct 24, 2010 12:21 PM
Bahrain Shiites retain chamber seats after vote

Embattled by months of crackdowns, Bahrain's Shiite Muslim majority held onto its strength in parliament, according to election results announced Sunday, but fell short of dealing a humbling blow against the minority Sunni rulers of this island kingdom and key U.S. ally.

Bahrain's ruling Sunni dynasty hoped that Saturday's vote would showcase one of the rare examples of Western-style elections in the conservative Gulf Arab region and portray a sense of order in a country with strategic links, including being the home port of the U.S. 5th Fleet _ one of the Pentagon's major counterweights against expanding Iranian military power in the area.

The Shiites, meanwhile, sought political payback with some of their top figures jailed and facing trial later this week on charges of plotting a coup.

Each came up short on some counts.

Election officials face claims of problems, including at least 2,000 voters reportedly turned away at the polls because of faulty lists. The biggest Shiite bloc, meanwhile, did not even aim for a majority in the 40-seat parliament _ fielding 18 candidates and winning each race _ while falling back on its claims that the voting system is engineered to undercut their population advantage.

But the overall advantage appeared to go to the Sunni rulers because of the relatively high turnout of 67 percent and the strong Shiite participation, said Shadi Hamid, a researcher on Gulf affairs at The Brookings Doha Center in neighboring Qatar.

"The big winner here is the government," said Hamid. "They have a turnout that is higher than most Western countries and can use it to point to the international community and say, 'Look, we still have democracy here.'"

Election results announced Sunday on state television gave 18 of the 40 seats to the largest Shiite political group and 13 to pro-government Sunnis. The remaining nine races will go to a second round on Oct. 30. They are mostly between backers of the ruling system _ which is almost certain to come away with a majority in the chamber.

Many races were hotly contested with billboards and door-to-door campaigning. But the outcome has little meaning to how Bahrain is actually run.

All important decisions rest with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain's monarch, and his extended clan. Shiites, however, see parliament as their best forum to press their complaints about perceived second-class status even though they account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's 530,000 citizens.

The leader of Al Wefaq, the main Shiite political group, alleged at least 2,000 voters were blocked from casting ballots because of incomplete lists.

Sheik Ali Salman told The Associated Press they will not seek to challenge the entire election results. But he described it as part of their overall complaints about a lopsided system, which they claim includes gerrymandered voting districts to dilute Shiite strength and a government-backed program to give citizenship to Sunnis from across the Middle East to boost their ranks.

"We really aren't satisfied with the outcome," he said. "We are the majority of the country and a majority of the voters, but we don't get a majority of the (parliament) seats. Why is that? It is clear that the government is doing this to keep us from gaining a bigger voice. We won't be satisfied until the election rules have changed."

He also listed as priorities: holding officials accountable for political detentions and alleged torture behind bars. More than 250 people have been taken into custody since the crackdowns began in August.

"We have no intention of remaining quiet over this," said Salman.

Washington has taken a cautious line on Bahrain.

A flurry of diplomatic talks sought to express U.S. concern about the arrests and the violent backlash, including running street battles last summer. But Washington cannot afford to alienate Bahrain's solidly pro-Western Sunni rulers, who have tribal and marriage ties across the Gulf.

There is also the hot-button issue of Iran in the background.

Bahrain's Sunni rulers see themselves as front-line defenders against suspected efforts by Iran to expand its influence in the region _ although there is no clear evidence that Tehran has links to Shiite political groups in Bahrain. Washington wants to stay on the best possible terms with all Arab Gulf regimes, which all share deep worries about Iran's ambitions.

"Does Iran wield influence in Bahrain? Most people would say no. But do some inside Bahrain's ruling system believe it? Probably, and it's a good way to open up a front against what they see are threats to the system," said Toby Jones, an expert on Sunni-Shiite affairs at Rutgers University.

The new parliament has just one woman _ a pro-government candidate who ran unopposed.

One of the most closely watched run-off races involves another woman: retired Sunni professor, Muneera Fakhro, who is considered a leading independent voice and a potential ally of the Shiite bloc. Fakhro failed in her parliament bid in the 2006 elections and has accused authorities of rigging the vote against her.