MANAMA (AFP) – Voting began Saturday in Bahrain’s first legislative elections since a failed pro-democracy uprising in 2011, with the opposition boycotting the polls in the tiny Gulf monarchy.
Bahrain, a key US ally, remains divided nearly four years after security forces in the Sunni-ruled kingdom quelled Arab Spring-inspired protests led by majority Shiites.
Al-Wefaq, the main opposition group, warned on the eve of the vote that failure by the kingdom’s rulers to ease their “monopoly” on power could trigger a surge in violence.
Clashes between young demonstrators and security forces erupted in Shiite villages outside the capital Manama ahead of the polls, according to witnesses.
The Gulf state’s electorate of almost 350,000 is being called to choose 40 deputies. Most the 266 candidates are Sunnis in a vote denounced by critics as a “farce”.
Polling stations opened at 8am and are due to close at 8pm. Municipal elections are being held at the same time.
In Riffa, a Sunni-dominated district south of Manama, dozens of people, mostly men dressed in traditional long white attire, lined up ahead of the start of voting.
“This election will help the development of the country under the leadership of the king,” said Naima El-Heddi, a civil servant in his 30s.
The opposition boycott means voter turnout will be a key marker of the validity of the vote.
Information Minister Samira Rajab stressed ahead of the polls that the government would not tolerate “chaos, unrest and foreign meddling” – a reference to Shiite Iran.
On the eve of elections, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the Shiite village of Diraz in support of the boycott, with police firing tear gas to disperse them.
“Boycott! Boycott!” they chanted.
In other villages AFP reporters saw barricades and burnt rubbish bins, as well as trees and concrete blocks that authorities said were aimed at preventing people going to vote.
Shiite demonstrators frequently clash with security forces in villages outside the capital, and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the month-long uprising in early 2011, which was crushed by the authorities.
Al-Wefaq withdraw its 18 lawmakers after a violent crackdown on demonstrators by security forces.
The country’s political rivals have struggled to bury their differences through a so-called “national dialogue” that fell apart despite several rounds of negotiations.
Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman said the lack of political accord could lead to an “explosion” of unrest in Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and a partner in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
The boycott stems from “the people’s demand for democratic reforms,” Salman told AFP, predicting a maximum 30 per cent turnout.
He said the opposition could only resume talks if the government agreed to implement reforms in line with a strict timetable.
The opposition wants a “real” constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister independent from the Al-Khalifa royal family.
But the Saudi-backed Sunni dynasty that rules over the majority Shiite kingdom has rejected the demand.
In October, a court banned Al-Wefaq for three months for violating a law on associations.
The movement refused to resume talks with the authorities in September despite a new proposal announced by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.
Salman said he did not expect the opposition to reach an agreement with the government, following Shiite-led protests he said had cost “at least 100 lives” over the past three years.