MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain’s main opposition boycotted elections on Saturday held to fill parliamentary seats vacated by its members during a crackdown on a mostly Muslim Shi‘ite protest movement in the Sunni-ruled monarchy.
The low turnout by Shi‘ite voters and lack of prominent Shi‘ite candidates appeared to favor pro-government candidates who previously would have met stiffer competition in districts of the Gulf island state, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
The Shi‘ite enclave of Sanabis adjacent to the capital of Manama was the scene of protests for a second night, with youths taunting police, blowing vuvuzela trumpets and shouting anti-government chants.
Police responded with rubber bullets and stun grenades, according to a Reuters witness.
Shi‘ites, who form Bahrain’s biggest community, took to the streets in February to demand more representation and access to jobs and benefits.
At least 30 people were killed, hundreds wounded and more than 1,000 detained in a government crackdown backed by troops brought in from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Wefaq opposition reacted by quitting 18 of the 20 seats in parliament and boycotted Saturday’s election, saying government efforts at reconciliation failed to address Shi‘ite grievances.
Jalil al-Alli, one of two candidates running for a seat in the Shi‘ite town of Saar, said he was standing because it was “better to work with the system than not.”
“I felt that running would be in the interests of the people. We need to monitor ministers and tackle issues like unemployment,” he said.
Four out of the 18 seats were uncontested so Saturday’s vote was for 14 seats in a parliament with limited powers.
“I don’t think Bahrain is ready for a stronger parliament,” said candidate Jamal Saleh, a Sunni Muslim, who was at a polling station in a shopping mall in a pro-opposition district.
The presiding judge at the polling station, Amal Ahmed Abdul, said voter turnout was lower than usual but those who had gone to the polls were enthusiastic.
“People are insisting on their right to vote even if they don’t find their name on the list,” Abdul said. “They are going back to officials and investigating to make sure there is a place they can vote.”
Despite its Shi‘ite majority, Bahrain is governed by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty, which allies Saudi Arabia and the United States regard as a bulwark against the regional influence of Shi‘ite power Iran.
Bahrain’s parliament has limited powers as its bills need to pass an upper house whose members are appointed by the king. Ultimate power in the country rests with the ruling family.
Matar Matar, a member of the Shi‘ite al Wefaq political bloc, said the low turnout was not due to the boycott but frustration over the situation in Bahrain. He resigned from parliament in February over the deaths of protesters and was jailed for several months.
“It’s more to do with the atmosphere where people are angry about ongoing violations, excessive use of force with protesters, dismissals from work, difficulties getting wounded protesters to health centers,” Matar said.
“All these seats were Wefaq seats and these people will fill the void but lack credibility. The authorities will say they reflect the silent majority but they are in denial. This election is just making the country’s crisis worse.”
The government said it expected voter turnout to be better than the 15 percent predicted by Wefaq, but had yet to tally the final vote count or results. Final figures are expected within the next few days.
The justice minister admitted there was more work to be done to restore peace in the country.
“We are not in a political crisis but we have a problem in Bahrain and the main issue is how to go forward,” Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa told reporters.
On the eve of the election, police blocked protesters trying to march to the capital Manama, cutting off roads to Sanabis and Bahrain Financial Harbour, which flank the central roundabout that was the center of protests seven months ago.
Earlier, Sanabis had been littered with debris and riot police were present in large numbers. “We don’t believe in this election, so we’ve been trying to protest since yesterday,” said a woman who gave her name as Umm Haider.
In a speech on Friday, Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman likened the protest movement to those that have swept other Arab countries this year.
“The conflict in Bahrain is between those who want freedom and democracy and those who support dictatorship, as is the case in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria,” he said. “Our demands are for freedom and justice, and if we achieve that, it will be for the better of citizens -- Sunnis and Shia.”
Since the height of the unrest the government has struggled to restore its image as a business-friendly Gulf hub, launching a national dialogue in July to discuss reforms.
Based on the talks, King Hamad agreed to expand the elected lower house’s powers of scrutiny. But the appointed upper council, the Shura, was left untouched.
Writing by Reed Stevenson; Editing by Sophie Hares