MANAMA: A war of words over Bahrain’s legislative election heightened on Sunday, with the Sunni leadership and the Shiite opposition, which boycotted the polls, at odds over the turnout rate and trading accusations of malpractice.
With the vote-counting still underway after Saturday’s elections to the 40-member parliament, the focus was on voter turnout, which became a key marker of the poll’s validity after the opposition boycott.
The official electoral commission put it at 51.5 percent, but the Shiite opposition, which has dismissed the elections as a “farce,” said that only 30 percent of eligible voters had turned out.
Both sides also traded accusations of electoral malpractice, with the opposition saying tens of thousands of people were pressured to vote, while the Sunni authorities accused Shiite militants of preventing others from reaching ballot stations.
The legislative polls were the first since security forces in the Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdom crushed Arab Spring-inspired protests led by the majority Shiites in 2011.
The tiny Gulf state and key US ally remains divided nearly four years after the protests.
Al-Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group which withdrew its 17 lawmakers after the crackdown, warned on Saturday that failure by Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty to ease the Sunni “monopoly” on power could trigger a surge in violence.
‘An end to confessionalism’
Voting closed at 7:00 p.m. (Manila time) on Saturday after a two-hour extension decided by the electoral commission, in a likely bid to boost turnout amid reports that many Shiites had heeded the boycott call.
An hour later the head of the commission, Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa, who is also justice minister, said initial estimates showed 51.5 percent of registered voters turned out to vote.
“Turnout for the legislative elections was 51.5 percent [and this result]puts an end to confessionalism in Bahrain,” he said in reference to Shiite-led opposition’s boycott call.
Almost 350,000 Bahrainis had been called to elect the 40-member parliament, with most of the 266 candidates Sunnis.
Al Wefaq called the official turnout rate “amusing, ridiculous, hardly credible.”
Government officials were “trying to fool public opinion and ignore the large election boycott by announcing exaggerated figures,” the opposition group said in a statement published early on Sunday.
The Shiite opposition instead cited a turnout figure of “around 30 percent,” allowing a possible 5-percent difference either way.
It also accused the authorities of making tens of thousands of state employees and others vote or face consequences.
Government officials, for their part, accused Shiite militants of provoking incidents which blocked roads in Shiite areas of the capital Manama in order to prevent people from voting.