Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition group on Sunday won all the seats it contested in a parliamentary vote seen to have little impact on the Sunni-run country where politics are tightly controlled by the rulers.
Sunni Islamists looked set to be the poll’s biggest losers. They retained only three of their 15 seats, losing some to Sunni independents, and will be forced to fight for another seven in a second round of voting.
The Gulf Arab kingdom’s Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq won all the 18 seats it contested, out of a total of 40, election officials said. It held 17 seats in the outgoing assembly.
The gain had been expected as the districts the group contested have mainly Shi’ite populations. The opposition accuses the government of apportioning districts in such a way as to prevent Shi’ite opposition members from gaining a majority in the assembly.
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.
Many Bahraini Shi’ites say they face discrimination in government housing and jobs, a charge the government denies.
The run-up to the vote was overshadowed by a broad security crackdown against some Shi’ite opposition groups in August that also targeted bloggers and human rights activists.
The justice ministry said turnout was 67 percent of eligible voters, down from 72 percent in 2006.
“Most striking to me is that turn-out was quite high,” said Jane Kinninmont, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“Maybe the crackdown that had some sectarian elements has prompted people to show solidarity with Wefaq, to show that the Shi’ite population is still there,” she said.
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.
SUNNI ISLAMIST LOSSES
Two Sunni Islamist groups loosely allied with the government, Al Asalah and Al Menbar, suffered the most in the poll as several seats they contested went to independent Sunni candidates.
The two groups, which had held a combined 15 seats in the outgoing assembly, won three seats directly, but another seven of their candidates will have to enter a second round of voting next Saturday.
“It was in line with expectation that this parliament would have fewer Islamists. Their supporters were not that impressed with their performance,” Kinninmont said.
Observers also said that in the run-up to the polls there had been less cooperation between Al Asalah and Al Menbar than during the last election in 2006, when they agreed not to compete against each other in some districts.
A Bahraini commentator who did not wish to be named said the government had considerable influence on the two groups and may have forced them to drop some of their most outspoken candidates.
Members had demanded a ban on the sale of alcohol in Bahrain, which would threaten the country’s tourism industry. They also had been vocal about corruption in the public sector.
“The government forced some of those who created the headache to them out of the process,” the commentator said.
Observers said the power balance in parliament could change considerably if secular group Waad, which has both Sunni and Shi’ite members, wins two seats in the second round after its third candidate lost his district.