BAHRAIN (Reuters) - The Gulf Arab kingdom Bahrain held a parliamentary election on Saturday, a vote unlikely to bring much change to a country tightly controlled by its rulers but which could exacerbate sectarian tensions.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has a Shi’ite Muslim majority population but is governed by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty, which allies Saudi Arabia and the United States see as a bulwark against the regional influence of Shi’ite power Iran.
The election unfolded in the wake of a security crackdown on Shi’ite opposition figures and activists. Many Bahraini Shi’ites say that they face discrimination over state housing and jobs, a charge the government denies.
Here are some facts about the election:
The election was the third since King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa introduced a new constitution and a parliamentary election in 2002. Bahrain has about 318,000 registered voters out of a population of around 1.3 million.
The assembly has limited powers when it comes to policy-making because its bills need to be passed by an upper house whose members are appointed by the king. Ultimate power in the country rests with the royal family.
Critics say the assembly has failed to address key Shi’ite grievances such as lack of housing and high unemployment among the country’s youth. It has, however, managed to press the government for more transparency over state-owned companies and land ownership of the ruling family.
A total of 127 candidates were competing for 40 seats.
Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq fielded 18 candidates. It held 17 seats in the outgoing assembly.
Wefaq boycotted the first election in 2002 in protest at parliament’s limited powers but took part in the 2006 vote. This prompted the more radical Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, which disputes the legitimacy of the king’s reform process, to break away from the group.
Some of the Haq Movement’s leaders were targeted in a security clampdown in August, with the government saying a network had been uncovered that planned to topple it by instigating violence.
Since the mid-1990s, night-time clashes between security forces and young Shi’ite protesters burning tyres and throwing petrol bombs have been a frequent occurrence in Bahrain.
Two Sunni Islamist groups, the Al Asalah Islamic Society and the Al Menbar National Islamic Society, ran eight candidates each. In 2006, Al Asalah won seven seats while Al Menbar, the political wing of the Al Islah Society associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, gained eight seats.
The secular National Democratic Action Society (Waad), with both Shi’ite and Sunni members, is competing in three districts.
Bahrain does not allow international monitoring of its elections but 379 Bahrainis registered to monitor the vote. The justice ministry was in charge of supervising the election.
Critics accused Bahrain of having delineated its voting districts in such a way as to ensure the Shi’ite opposition could not obtain a majority in parliament.
Some densely populated Shi’ite districts have up to 15,000 registered voters, while areas where only Sunni candidates are running have a much smaller number on the electoral roll.
The opposition said it was mostly concerned with ten general polling stations where voters could cast votes regardless of their place of residence, making monitoring more difficult.
It also said thickly populated Shi’ite areas have not been represented in parliament according to their share of the population.
Reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by Mark Heinrich