MANAMA — Bahrain voted on Saturday in parliamentary elections held in what environment rights groups described as “political repression” after the Gulf Arab state dissolved main opposition groups and quashed dissent.
Turnout will be announced in the evening in the Sunni-ruled state, which crushed a 2011 anti-government uprising led largely by the Shi’ite Muslim community that has long complained of discrimination, a charge authorities deny.
Ahead of the vote, which includes municipal polls, Amnesty International criticized “highly restrictive measures” that bar members of banned opposition groups and those who have served jail terms longer than six months.
“Holding this general election will not address the atmosphere of repression and the denial of human rights that has gripped Bahrain for years,” the rights group said in a statement.
Bahrain, a U.S. ally, has jailed thousands, including opposition leaders, sometimes in mass trials.
The government said 344,713 voters were eligible to vote, down from 365,467 in the last polls in 2018.
London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, calling the vote a “sham,” said legislation on voter inclusion appeared to target those who boycotted earlier polls.
Justice Minister Nawaf Al-Ma’awda, when asked, said the voter list did not include individuals who did not previously vote but that they “were given the chance to then register.”
“No one is penalized for choosing not to vote,” a government spokesperson later said, adding the elections had “more candidates than ever before.”
Just over 500 candidates are running for 40 parliamentary and 30 municipal seats, including 94 women, more than double the 2018 figure, authorities say.
Parliament consists of the Council of Representatives and a 40-member Shura Council appointed by the king.
The Interior Ministry late on Friday announced a cyber attack on websites “to hinder the elections.” A foreign ministry official said investigations were ongoing.
“I don’t see anyone domestically with vested interest to do this,” Sheikh Abdulla Al Khalifa, undersecretary for political affairs at the Foreign Ministry, told Reuters, noting past cyber attacks had been traced back to Iran.
Bahrain accuses Shi’ite Iran of fostering unrest in the kingdom where security forces have been targeted by bomb attacks. Tehran denies the allegations.
Bahraini Shi’ites have long complained of discrimination in seeking jobs and government services in the country of 1.5 million, a charge authorities reject.
“Under the ashes (of the uprising) there are embers. If the government does not address grievances the opposition will keep producing leaders, no matter how many remain in prison or exile,” Ebrahim Sharif, a former official of the dissolved secular Waad political group, told Reuters in Manama.
A small oil producer that is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is one of the most indebted states in the Gulf.
It was bailed out in 2018 by wealthy neighbors with an aid package of $10 billion tied to reforms aimed at attaining fiscal balance by 2024. Its debt fell slightly to 129% of GDP in 2021.
Higher oil prices have improved the fiscal outlook for Bahrain, which says it is pushing ahead with an economic recovery plan to grow non-oil GDP by 5% this year and create 20,000 jobs for Bahrainis each year for the next two years.
At one polling center several voters said job creation and wages were main concerns.
“They need to reassure new graduates that there will be jobs for them…and take care of pensioners,” Ali Jassem Ibrahim, a 54-year-old defense ministry employee, told Reuters. “Focus on citizens’ standards of living.” (Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Ros Russell)