x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Bahrain's officials wary over election conduct criticisms

'Immense international media pressure' as debate ensues over violence and arrests before the election, as unofficial opposition calls for boycott.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Jid Hafes, a northern suburb of Manama, yesterday.
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Jid Hafes, a northern suburb of Manama, yesterday.

MANAMA // The minister of foreign affairs said yesterday that Bahrain has been facing "immense international media pressure" over the unrest that has gripped the country in the lead-up to the election.

"There has been regional and international interest in these elections," said the minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, in a press conference for journalists covering the event at Bahrain Financial Harbour. "We have been facing immense international media pressure and we replied, but they don't publish our replies."

The government arrested scores of protesters connected to street violence leading up to the poll. The opposition has suggested that the government instigated the unrest to create tension between the island's Shiite majority and Sunnis before the election, but the government has argued it must enforce the law.

"It's a controversial issue, today and in the future - who has the louder voice," the minister said.

The prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, who has led the government since 1971, told The National while casting his vote at the Central Governorate's ninth constituency that he hopes the election will bring "cooperation between the members of the parliament and the government".

But the parliament and government have struggled to cooperate over issues such public land that ended up in the hands of influential individuals, the legalisation of alcohol and the state budget. Bahrain's hard-line opposition argues that there is no point in participating in a system that is set up to give pro-government candidates a majority.

Topping the opposition's list of concerns are the district sizes. The Northern Governorate, where many Shiites live, has a population of just over 107,000 and elects nine members of the house. The Southern Governorate, where many pro-government Sunnis live, has about 17,000 voters and elects six.

Three unofficial opposition groups released a statement on Friday setting out 11 reasons why voters should boycott the election. A statement from the Al Wafa Islamic Movement, the Al Haq Movement and the Bahrain Freedom movement said the people should reject the constitution and protest at alleged government manipulation of the vote.

"The past eight years have resulted in only disappointment," the statement said.

Abdulnabi Alekry, the chairman of the Bahrain Transparency Society (BTS), an independent monitor, speaking at a conference in the society, said the election was being carried out in a "pessimistic" atmosphere after the government cancelled the licences for opposition newsletters and conducted a "campaign of slander" against them.

The BTS is considered by many in the country to be the only independent society, with members among the 292 observers taking part. The government took over the administration of another monitor, the Bahrain Human Rights Society, and told international monitors they could not take part in the run up to the poll.

"There are so many concerns about the freedom of choice for the military, the naturalised," Mr Alekry said. "There have been a lot of voters coming from Saudi," he said, citing another major concern with the vote.

Ten general polling stations have been set up across the country, where voters from any district can vote. The government says that they are convenient, but the opposition claims that votes are moved from these centres to tip the balance in tightly fought constituencies.

One of the centres is located on the King Fahad Causeway, a road that skips over islands and reclaimed land to connect the Bahraini kingdom with its Saudi neighbour. Khalifa al Omeeri, a joint Saudi-Bahraini national who lives and works in Dammam, said: "Many people came from Saudi, maybe 6,000 of them."

The opposition believes that Saudi tribes are among the groups which have been naturalised to reduce the Shiite majority in the country. Mr al Omeeri argued that many of the Saudis come from tribes that originated in Bahrain.

A voter at the centre who lives in Bahrain, Mohammed Khalaf, said: "There are lots of Saudi who come here, this place is packed with cars with Saudi licence plates. Look at their clothes - they're not Bahraini. They only have the passport."

Despite Mr Khalaf's reservations about naturalised citizens, he believes the election this year is more free than 2006, and democracy is growing in the country.

The minister of justice and Islamic affairs, Sheikh Khaled bin Ali al Khalifa, argued in a round-up of the day's events that all Bahrainis are permitted to take part in the election regardless of where they live. He said: "The state is in total neutrality in the election process".