Bahrain’s embattled Shias keep parliament seats

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MANAMA: Bahrain’s embattled Shia-led opposition held on to all of its parliament seats in weekend elections, according to official results announced Sunday, but fell short of the majority it hoped to win as a show of strength against the island kingdom’s Sunni rulers.

The leaders of the strategic U.S. ally have waged a campaign of arrests and intimidation against suspected Shia opponents since August, claiming they seek to undermine the ruling system and could open the door for Shia powerhouse Iran to exert influence in the heart of the Arab Gulf.

Shias in Bahrain say they only seek greater rights and opportunities after being shut out from key decision-making roles in the country.

The main Shia opposition group, Al Wefaq, kept its 18 seats in the 40-member legislature. Though it did not win a majority in Saturday’s election, it could still forge alliances with liberal parties and others to eventually gain the upper hand in parliament for a symbolic slap to Bahrain’s leaders.

As in the last elections, in 2006, the Shia group said there were irregularities, including claims that hundreds of Shias were blocked from voting. Bahrain does not allow international election monitors.

This could result in challenges to the outcome and complicate hopes of cooling tensions after waves of arrests and street clashes between majority Shias who claim widespread discrimination and the Sunni leadership seeking to maintain its grip.

Bahrain’s parliament has only limited powers and can be overruled by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The king opened Bahrain’s clan-based political system after taking power in 1999 and introduced the parliamentary elections, creating one of the few elected legislative bodies in the region.

Many Shias hoped that gaining more seats would have sent a message not to ignore their demands for a greater say in how the country is run.

In other results, 13 pro-government Sunni candidates won seats, and the other nine contests will head to runoffs on Saturday, according to election officials who announced the outcome on state television. Most of the runoffs are between pro-government candidates.

The election is likely to resonate well beyond the final count, and could touch on the long-term stability of Bahrain, a strategic American partner. As home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, the island nation is a centerpiece of Washington’s efforts to confront Iran’s military expansion in the Gulf.

The latest unrest is part of discord that has simmered for decades in tiny Bahrain: Shias pushing for a greater political voice and the ruling Sunni dynasty trying to protect its control and place among the Sunni Arab clans that dominate the Gulf.

U.S. officials have toed a careful line. They count on Bahrain’s leaders as reliable friends — particularly for their tough stance on Iran — but also worry that the heavy-handed tactics against perceived dissidents could leave the country sharply divided and difficult to govern.

"Bahrain has the potential to turn really nasty," said Christopher Davidson, a professor at the University of Durham in Britain, who has written extensively about the region. "There is a widening wealth gap between rich and poor and is just so happens that the rich are the Sunni leaders and the poor are the Shias."

Less than an hour before voting closed on Saturday, the head of the Shia Al Wefaq party lodged allegations of irregularities.

Sheikh Ali Salman claimed that at least 890 voters were turned away from polling stations in mostly Shia areas because their names were not on electoral lists. Even small numbers of votes are crucial in a country with fewer than 319,000 eligible voters.

"This is not the full number," Salman told a news conference. "We expect it to be higher."

In the last election, Sunni authorities rejected claims of irregularities and pro-government candidates took control of parliament.

Bahraini officials did not immediately comment on the latest claims of voting troubles. But Bahrain’s justice minister, Sheik Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa, said he expected "only a number of infringements" and hailed the voting as fair.

Shia leaders also claim voting districts were gerrymandered to undercut the Shias’ numerical strength — Bahrain is one of the few Arab countries with a Shia majority, though it is ruled by a Sunni dynasty.

Working against that, government policies have given citizenship to Sunnis from around the region to boost their ranks.

More than 250 people have been detained in the government’s crackdown since August, and Shia protesters have fought back with sporadic street clashes and barricades of burning tires.

Next week, a highly sensitive trial begins for 23 Shia activists accused of plotting a coup. Pro-government crews have canvassed Bahrain trying to paint over graffiti condemning the crackdown or showing stenciled images of leading opposition figures.


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