MANAMA – Bahrain is holding parliamentary elections on Saturday in what rights groups describe as “political repression” after the Gulf Arab state, a US ally, dissolved key opposition groups and cracked down on dissent.
Polls opened at 8 a.m. in the Sunni-ruled island nation, which crushed an anti-government uprising in 2011, largely led by the Shiite Muslim community that has long complained of discrimination, a charge authorities have denied.
Ahead of the vote, which includes municipal polls, rights group Amnesty International criticized “extremely restrictive measures” that exclude members of banned opposition groups and those in prison for more than six months.
“Holding these general elections will not address the climate of repression and denial of human rights that has gripped Bahrain for years,” Amnesty said in a statement.
Bahrain, which has jailed thousands, some in mass trials, including opposition leaders, said 344,713 voters were eligible, compared with 365,467 in the last polls in 2018.
More than 500 candidates are running for 40 parliamentary seats and 30 municipal council seats, of which 94 are women, more than twice as many as in 2018, the authorities say.
The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy described the vote as a “fraud” and said other legislation linking voter turnout to previous voter turnout appeared to target individuals who skipped previous polls.
Bahraini authorities, which deny allegations of human rights abuses and say elections there are democratic, did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
Its parliament consists of the elected Council of Representatives and the Shura Council, whose 40 members are appointed by the king.
A small oil producer that is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is one of the most indebted states in the Persian Gulf.
It was bailed out in 2018 by wealthy neighbors with a US$10 billion aid package linked to reforms aimed at achieving 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 increase non-oil GDP by 5% this year and create 20,000 jobs for Bahrain every year for the next two years.
Many Shiites in Bahrain complain of being discriminated against in areas such as jobs and public services in the nation of 1.5 million. Authorities deny the allegations and have accused Iran’s Shiite enemies of fomenting the unrest, a charge Tehran denies.
“Underneath the ashes (of the uprising) there are embers. If the government does not address the grievances, the opposition will continue to produce leaders, no matter how many are in prison or exile,” Ebrahim Sharif, a former official of the disbanded secular Waad political community, told Reuters in Manama. (Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)