SHAFAQNA- Bahrain is holding elections in the face of a boycott by the largest Shiite-Muslim opposition group more than three years after deadly protests targeting Sunni rule of the Persian Gulf island nation.
A total of 419 candidates will run for parliamentary and municipal council seats in tomorrow’s vote, the Directorate of Election and Referendum, based in the capital, Manama, said in a statement on its website. Public security chief Tariq al-Hassan said the police will “monitor groups or individuals” that try to hinder balloting or threaten national security.
Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, faced the most violent demonstrations among the Gulf Cooperation Council states during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, with mainly Shiite-Muslim protesters demanding greater democracy and improved rights. Backed by security forces from other GCC states, Bahrain cracked down on the protests, leaving 35 people dead, and has regularly suppressed smaller demonstrations and arrested activists.
“The government has made minor concessions to the opposition in an effort to quell unrest and appear conciliatory, but has not made substantive political reform,” Patricia Letayf, a Middle East analyst at Control Risks, said in response to e-mailed questions. “The fact that the government has not laid out a plan for a lasting political solution shows that there are significant obstacles in the way of breaking the deadlock in the national dialogue process.”
Last month al-Wefaq, the country’s largest Shiite bloc, said it would boycott the vote. More than two weeks later the Justice Ministry banned the activities of the group for three months, saying it failed to comply with rules when holding meetings.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at the time that the ruling “runs contrary to fostering an environment of political inclusion.”
Voting centers will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow at more than 50 locations, according to the Directorate of Election and Referendum. There are 153 candidates for the municipal councils and 266 for the 40-seat lower house of parliament, known as the Council of Representatives, according to the directorate. The upper house, the Shura council, has 40 members who are appointed by the ruling Al Khalifa family.
Unrest among the Shiite majority has flared repeatedly since 2011, with attacks against police and protests against the Al Khalifas, who have accused Iran of instigating unrest among its Shiite co-religionists. The Iranians deny the accusations, which analysts say have some merit.
“It would be a lot easier for Bahrain to resolve its inter-sectarian issues if Iran stopped stirring the pot,” Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said by e-mail.
Last month, 40 rights and media groups called on the international community to condemn “the ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders” in the country. “While the government of Bahrain continues to publicly tout efforts towards reform, the facts on the ground speak to the contrary,” they said on Oct. 29 in an online statement.
The government’s response has strained ties with the U.S.
In July, Bahrain asked Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, to leave the country because he “intervened flagrantly” in its internal affairs, the official Bahrain News Agency said. He was declared persona non grata after holding meetings with “a particular party to the detriment of other interlocutors,” it said.
“While relations were strained following Bahrain’s ousting of a U.S. official from the country, military cooperation remains robust and the incident is unlikely to impact strategic relations,” Letayf said. “Government actions that the U.S. perceives as obstructive to reconciliation will strain the relationship periodically.”