Voters in Bahrain cast ballots Saturday in the island kingdom\’s first full parliamentary election since Arab Spring-inspired protests erupted four years ago, but a boycott called by the country\’s opposition threatens to overshadow the poll.
A collection of opposition groups including al-Wefaq, the country\’s most organized and popular Shiite group, is urging supporters to stay away from the polls. Al-Wefaq accuses the government of not taking seriously enough reform efforts and improving reconciliation between supporters of Bahrain\’s Sunni monarchy and an opposition movement dominated by the country\’s Shiite majority.
A total of 419 candidates are running for municipal and parliamentary seats Saturday. Any candidates that do not secure more than 50 percent of the vote will head to a runoff a week later.
The elections will determine the makeup of the lower house of parliament, which has limited direct powers but carries important symbolism as part of political reforms begun more than a decade ago. Members of the upper house are appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, whose family controls most senior government posts, including that of the unelected prime minister.
A number of candidates have faced intimidation, with several having their cars and campaign facilities torched before the vote.
The elections are being watched closely by Bahrain\’s Gulf Arab neighbors and Washington. Street protests and other low-level unrest continues to roil Bahrain in the wake of a 2011 uprising calling for greater political freedoms in the country, which hosts the U.S. Navy\’s 5th Fleet and is part of the U.S.-led coalition striking the Islamic State group.
Al-Wefaq withdrew its 18 members from parliament in 2011 after Bahraini authorities backed by security forces from neighboring Gulf states crushed the protests. By-elections were called to fill those seats, which increased the share of pro-government supporters in parliament.
Several opposition supporters remain behind bars following convictions related to the 2011 unrest, and a number of prominent rights activists are awaiting verdicts on charges they say are politically motivated.
Initial results are expected Sunday.