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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Bahrain conducts symbolic election after banning all opposition candidates

Officials report 73% turnout as record 330 candidates, including 73 women, run for 40-seat parliament; rights groups have said vote comes in ‘environment of political repression’

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Bahrainis headed to the polls on Saturday, but a ban on opposition candidates meant the election would produce no meaningful change despite a record number of people vying for seats, rights groups said.

More than 330 candidates, including a record 73 women, are vying to join the 40-seat Council of Representatives, the lower house of parliament that advises King Hamad, who has ruled since the death of his father in March 1999.

That’s more than the 293 people – including 41 women – who stood for parliament in the last election in 2018.

Queues formed outside some of the kingdom’s 55 polling stations before they opened at 8:00 a.m. (05:00 GMT).

Amina Issa, head of polling stations in Manama, said turnout was “intense from the first hours and the numbers are steadily increasing”.

After polling stations closed at 8:00 p.m. (1700 GMT), the government’s National Communications Center published an official figure of 73 percent turnout, surpassing the 67 percent recorded in 2018.

The government, dominated by the Sunni ruling family, has banned the two main opposition groups from fielding candidates – the Shiite Al-Wefaq and the secular Waad parties, which were dissolved in 2016 and 2017.

“This election will not bring any change,” said British Bahraini human rights activist Ali Abdulemam.

“Without the opposition, we will not have a healthy country,” he told AFP.

The election comes more than a decade after Shia-led protesters demanding political reforms intervened in 2011.

Since then, authorities have jailed hundreds of dissidents — including Al-Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman — and stripped many of their citizenship.

The official site has been hacked

Amnesty International said this week’s elections will be held in an “environment of political repression”.

A government spokesman rejected the criticism on Saturday, saying in a statement that Bahrain was a “vibrant democracy”.

“The exercise of political rights in Bahrain is protected by the constitution, except where nomination requirements are not met – this is standard practice in all democratic countries,” the spokesman said.

“Requirements include not having a criminal record or not belonging to a company dissolved due to their judicially proven participation in violent acts contrary to legitimate political activity.”

Friday’s hacking operation targeted official election websites, as well as the websites of parliament and the state news agency, although all three were restored by Saturday afternoon.

The Home Office said the sites were “aimed at obstructing the election and spreading negative messages in a desperate attempt” to discourage voting.

The identity of the hackers was not immediately clear.

A strategic ally

In 2018, Bahrain passed the so-called Political and Civic Isolation Laws, which ban former opposition party members from running for parliament and serving on the boards of civic organizations.

Human Rights Watch, citing Bahraini civil society officials, said in October that the retroactive bans affected between 6,000 and 11,000 Bahraini citizens.

The election “offers little hope of a freer and fairer outcome,” HRW said.

The latest vote comes less than a week after Pope Francis wrapped up a landmark visit to promote interfaith dialogue – his second in the Gulf nation after a trip to the United Arab Emirates in 2019.

Without naming specific countries, the pope urged respect for human rights, saying it was vital that they “not be violated but promoted.”

Located just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, the island nation is a strategic Western ally and normalized relations with Israel in 2020.

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