Bahrain holds parliament polls; rights groups slam 'repressive' climate
Turnout would be announced after polling ends at 8:00 pm in the Sunni-ruled state, which crushed a 2011 anti-government uprising led largely by the Shi'ite Muslim community that has long complained of discrimination, a charge authorities deny. Ahead of the vote, which includes municipal polls, rights group Amnesty International criticised "highly restrictive measures" that bar members of banned opposition groups and those who have served jail terms longer than six months.
Bahrainis on Saturday voted in parliamentary elections held in an environment rights groups described as "political repression" since the Gulf Arab state has dissolved the main opposition groups and cracked down on dissent. Turnout would be announced after polling ends at 8:00 pm in the Sunni-ruled state, which crushed a 2011 anti-government uprising led largely by the Shi'ite Muslim community that has long complained of discrimination, a charge authorities deny.
Ahead of the vote, which includes municipal polls, rights group Amnesty International criticised "highly restrictive measures" that bar members of banned opposition groups and those who have served jail terms longer than six months. "Holding this general election will not address the atmosphere of repression and the denial of human rights that has gripped Bahrain for years," Amnesty said in a statement.
Bahrain, a U.S. ally, has jailed thousands, including opposition leaders, sometimes in mass trials. The government said 344,713 voters were eligible to vote, down from 365,467 in the last polls in 2018.
London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, describing the vote as a "sham", said legislation on voter inclusion appeared to target individuals who boycotted earlier polls. Justice Minister Nawaf Al-Ma'awda, when asked, told reporters at a polling station that the voter list did not include individuals who did not previously vote but that they "were given the chance to then register".
A government spokesperson later said in a statement that "no one is penalized for choosing not to vote" and that the elections had seen "more candidates than ever before". Just over 500 candidates are running for 40 parliamentary and 30 municipal seats, including 94 women, more than double the 2018 figure, authorities say.
Parliament consists of the elected Council of Representatives and the 40-member Shura Council, appointed by the king. The Interior Ministry late on Friday announced hacking attempts on websites "to hinder the elections". GRIEVANCES
Many Bahraini Shi'ites complain of facing discrimination in areas such as jobs and government services in the nation of 1.5 million. Authorities reject the accusations and have accused Shi'ite Iran of fostering unrest, a charge Tehran denies. "Under the ashes (of the uprising) there are embers. If the government does not address grievances the opposition will keep producing leaders, no matter how many remain in prison or exile," Ebrahim Sharif, a former official of the dissolved secular Waad political party, told Reuters in Manama.
A small oil producer that is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is one of the most indebted states in the Gulf. It was bailed out in 2018 by wealthy neighbours with an aid package of $10 billion tied to reforms aimed at attaining fiscal balance by 2024. Its debt fell slightly to 129% of GDP in 2021.
Higher oil prices have improved the fiscal outlook for Bahrain, which says it is pushing ahead with an economic recovery plan to grow non-oil GDP by 5% this year and create 20,000 jobs for Bahrainis each year for the next two years. At a polling centre set up in Bahrain International Circuit, where Formula 1 races are held, several voters said job creation and wages were their main concerns at a time of rising prices.
"They need to reassure new graduates that there will be jobs for them...and take care of pensioners," Ali Jassem Ibrahim, a 54-year-old defence ministry employee, told Reuters. "Focus on citizens' standards of living."
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