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Middle East Amp North Africa
Bahrain set for first poll since uprising
From the Financial Times of Fri, 21 Nov 2014 10:08:01 GMT
epa04496382 An expatriate street vendor stands near a poster of parliamentary candidate Jameel Al-Mahrari (L) and his brother Shakher Al-Mahari, a municipal council candidate, on a side street in Saar village, north of Manama, Bahrain, 20 November 2014. Bahrain Minister of State for Information Affairs and the government spokesperson, Samira bin Rajab, said that all preparations for the elections had been completed and that the opposition boycott would not affect the elections. Bahrain is set to hold its parliamentary and municipal elections on 22 November as leading opposition groups say they will be boycotting the elections demanding further democratic reforms and release of prisoners as condition to participate. EPA/MAZEN MAHDI©EPA

Bahrain goes to the polls on Saturday in the island state’s first general election since a youth-led uprising in 2011 led to widespread unrest.

An opposition boycott has dashed hopes that the vote could end the political deadlock that has gripped the strategic Gulf state since the Saudi-backed bloody crackdown on dissent three-and-a-half years ago.

“Accountability for the crackdown has not happened and the government’s security approach continues,” said Abduljalil al-Khelil of al-Wefaq, the largest partner in the opposition coalition. “This is not the environment for elections.”

The Shia-led opposition claims that voting districts favour the Sunni minority that backs the monarchy, undermining the chance for any meaningful change.

The Gulf monarchy is struggling to rebuild a stable foundation to revive its services-oriented economy as violent protests in Shia areas undermine stability.

Polarised Bahrain has become a frontline in the region’s sectarian cold war as Sunni Gulf states line up against Shia Iran in proxy conflicts. The Gulf states are giving financial backing to the indebted government in Manama, fearful that more democracy would hand another political victory to Iran, their traditional foe.

Western powers have also backed the ruling family, which hosts naval bases for the US and the UK. Bahrain has joined the US-led coalition of Gulf Arab states fighting Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq.

In the run-up to Saturday’s elections, the authorities have suspended al-Wefaq’s activities and banned large demonstrations. The group claims the police have stepped up arrests and criminal proceedings against protesters, with 150 people facing life sentences and around 50 having had their citizenship removed. Political prisoners – dubbed criminals by the government – remain behind bars.

But Citizens for Bahrain, an advocacy group that responds to criticism of the country, says the elections are part of a smooth transition to a more “democratic, reformed, representative and stable situation”.

Candidates, it says, are prioritising “vital issues” such as housing, unemployment and living standards.

The slump in global oil prices is particularly dangerous for Bahrain, which needs prices of $125 a barrel to balance the budget, leading to persistent deficits.

One independent candidate, Abdulla Alderazi, says the boycott call will merely marginalise the opposition further. Mr Alderazi, a Shia human rights activist, said the country needed to focus on achieving political and economic reforms. “The boycott is not a good strategy – it is a negative attitude,” he said.

The reform-minded crown prince this year opened direct talks with the opposition and pro-government groups.

Talks were moving towards a solution that would grant the opposition greater power in parliament, potentially holding half of the seats.

al-Wefaq won 64 per cent of the popular vote in the polls of 2006 and 2010, but the make-up of electoral boundaries left it with only 18 out of 40 seats in parliament.

The opposition said boundary changes imposed last month have further reduced its chances of securing enough seats to balance the influence of pro-government MPs.

The government has also refused opposition demands to limit the power of the appointed upper house and has introduced new regulations making it harder for parliamentarians to quiz ministers.

“The opposition has decided that, after all the sacrifice and violence, it is worse to go back to an unchanged system than exist outside of it,” said Justin Gengler, a Doha-based political analyst.

He said the boundary changes also seem designed to undermine the Sunni Islamist groupings amid government fears of rising radicalism.

Up to 300 Bahrainis are believed to be fighting alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Isis.

The ruling family has exploited the sectarian atmosphere in the aftermath of Shia-led demonstrations in 2011, relying on Sunni groups for political backing. But the domestic threat of Isis and Sunni extremism is starting to trump concerns about alleged Iranian interference.

“The state is adept at using legal rules and procedural regulations to shape who can and cannot participate in formal politics,” said Mr Gengler.

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