(Updates with run-off vote, government statement)
By Andrew Hammond
MANAMA, Sept 25 Fewer than one in five voters
cast ballots in Bahraini by-elections this weekend, a government
website showed, after the Shi'ite majority in the Gulf Arab
state boycotted the polls following the crushing of a protest
movement earlier this year.
The largest opposition party, Wefaq, walked out of 18 seats
after security forces killed protesters at the start of
pro-democracy demonstrations in February that echoed the Arab
Spring movement sweeping other countries in the region.
In 14 districts, only 25,130 voters of a total 144,513 came
out to vote, a 17.4 percent turnout, according to figures
published on the government's elections website www.vote.bh. All
the candidates are independents who would have found victory a
tall order without the boycott.
Voting did not take place in four districts where candidates
were running uncontested and automatically won the seat. Of the
14 contested seats, another poll will be held for 9 seats on
Oct. 1 since no candidate was able to win a majority.
The low turnout was a victory for Wefaq which called on
voters to boycott the by-elections. Wefaq had predicted a 15
percent turnout and the government had said it was hoping for at
least 30 percent.
In the United Arab Emirates, a nearby Gulf country that also
held elections for an advisory council on Saturday, voter
turnout was below expectations at 28 percent.
After calling in Saudi troops and imposing martial law to
quell the February protests, the government began a national
dialogue that has proposed reforms that opposition groups say
fall short of their demands for a transition to democracy.
The proposals allow for increased parliamentary monitoring
of government ministers, but do not give the elected body real
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa appoints an upper house and
his uncle, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, has been prime minister
for four decades. Bahrain, an island state that hosts the U.S.
Fifth Fleet, remains deeply divided.
The Sunni Muslim monarchy says the protest movement and
opposition groups had a Shi'ite sectarian agenda and were acting
in coordination with non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran.
The opposition denies this and says the claim is an excuse
for the ruling elite to avoid giving up their monopoly on power.
The justice minister said the turnout had been a victory for
Bahrainis against "sectarian division".
"There is a popular will to create the present and the
future and challenge the sectarian division that some want to
create," Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa told reporters on
Saturday. He said some people had been arrested for trying to
"We are not in a political crisis, but we have a problem in
Bahrain and the main issue is how to move forward."
The government blamed the low turnout in some districts on
"What is clear is that in areas where Bahrainis were allowed
to freely exercise their democratic right, turnout was high...
what is also clear is that in areas where voters had rocks
thrown at them, road blocks put in their way and where they
suffered sickening intimidation, turnout was low," Bahrain's
Information Affairs Authority said in a statement.
But Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman, a Shi'ite cleric, said
the results showed Bahrainis rejected the king's reforms and the
government faced a stark choice between a move to democracy or
"There is no such thing as 'Bahraini democracy', there has
to be peaceful rotation of power," he told a news conference at
Wefaq headquarters in Manama. "If there is no transition,
Bahrain will remain in a crisis of security and human rights.
This is a historic moment."
Though martial law ended in May, clashes continue almost
nightly in many Shi'ite areas of the country, whose profile as a
banking hub has been dented by the turmoil.
Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services
Institute (RUSI) in Qatar, said the election amounted to a
referendum on the king's national dialogue and the country now
faced a dangerous stalemate.
"Given what King Hamad has said about the urgent nature of
reforms, the question is if he can deliver. If he doesn't then I
think Bahrain's in serious trouble," he said. "You'll see an
escalation of violence."
(Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Tim Pearce)