SHAFAQNA – Violent clashes and a boycott by opposition parties marred elections in Bahrain at the weekend, the first held in the gulf kingdom since protests at the height of the Arab Spring.
Nearly four years on from the 2011 uprising that rocked Bahrain and prompted a crackdown in which dozens were killed, the parliamentary vote on Saturday underscored the sectarian rift that still divides this western ally.
While Downing Street has thrown its weight behind the ruling family, meeting persistent allegations of human rights abuses with only mild criticism, the kingdom’s lack of reform is an embarrassment to the UK. Britain has been quick to defend Bahrain despite the fact that it imprisoned doctors who treated protesters for bullet wounds sustained during demonstrations. The West relies on the kingdom for hosting the US navy’s Fifth fleet. The UK is also bidding to sell Typhoon fighter jets to the kingdom and has held talks about a £100 million expansion to the Royal Navy’s facilities in Manama.
Bahrain’s mainly Shia opposition dismissed the election as a “farce”, boycotting the poll in protest at the Sunni royal family’s failure to implement political reform after the 2011 crisis. The walkout wrecked any chance that the vote could ease the political deadlock.
Dozens were killed and thousands more thrown in jail when the government sent in troops to crush the Shia-led uprising in 2011. Hundreds of people, including opposition leaders, are still behind bars. Efforts at dialogue between the sides have collapsed.
With votes still being counted yesterday, the two sides accused each other of fraud and malpractice. Opposition groups accused the ruling dynasty of rigging the turnout.
Bahrain’s Shia community is a majority in the tiny island kingdom but the electoral commission placed the official turnout at 51.5 per cent yesterday. Opposition parties claimed that the true figure was closer to 30 per cent amid signs that many Shia voters stayed away. Al-Wefaq, the largest party in the opposition bloc, derided the government’s claims as “amusing, ridiculous and hardly credible”.
In loyalist areas, the government laid on free transport to get out the vote and opposition groups scorned a competition to win an iPhone linked to the ballot. Government officials countered that candidates in Shia areas had been threatened and voters intimidated into staying away. In Shia villages west of the capital, Manama, youths throwing stones clashed with police who responded with tear gas.
“This election has no legitimacy and no one has faith in it,” said Nabeel Rajab, a human rights activist recently released after two years in jail. “After more than three years, the government still has no solution for Bahrain’s deep political and human rights problems.”