18/09/2010 – 12:04 am | Hits: 444
James Calderwood, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: September 18. 2010 9:59PM UAE / September 18. 2010 5:59PM GMT
Bahrainis cast their votes in May 2002. The government has recently announced that civil-society groups will be allowed to monitor the upcoming election but international organisations will be banned. Adam Jan / AFP
MANAMA // Opposition supporters in Bahrain are claiming that the government is bringing in Sunnis from outside the country and making them citizens so they can vote in next month’s elections.
The critics also claimed in interviews with The National last week that the government, besides naturalising thousands of foreigners, has manipulated electoral boundaries and set up a system that will allow its supporters to vote outside their residential districts to ensure a pro-government majority is returned to parliament’s lower house in the elections.
State officials would not comment about the allegations. However, a pro-government candidate, Othman al Rayes, said he has not heard of “any abnormal things”, and believes the election will be fair.
Abdulnabi Alekry, the president of Bahrain Transparency Society (BTS), an NGO that will monitor both the elections for parliament and the municipality on October 23, said there is “a chronic problem with gerrymandering in the districts”. “There is no justice and the disparity will continue this year,” he said.
Mr Alekry said districts in the Northern Governorate, where there is strong support for opposition and often Shiite candidates, have on average about 15 times more voters than districts in Southern Governorate where many loyalists reside.
“In gerrymandering they still observe one man, one vote,” said Ibrahim Sharif, the secretary general of the National Democratic Action Society, a liberal group that opposes the government.
“Here it’s worse than that because you can have a district that has only 1,000 voters that get one MP and another that has 17,000 voters that get one MP,” he said.Mr al Rayes admitted that the unbalanced distribution of voters is not fair “to an extent”, but it is a law “and you have to accept it”. He said any move to change the boundaries should go through proper channels such as parliament.
Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni royal family while more than 70 per cent of the population is Shiite. The largest Shiite party to contest the last election in 2006, Al Wefaq, won 17 of 40 contested seats, making it the largest voice of opposition in the chamber.
Sunni Islamists and independents held all of the remaining seats.Khalil al Marzooq, the deputy chairman of Al Wefaq, said that about 100,000 Sunnis have been naturalised since the 1990s to bolster the government.
“It’s a crime because they are bringing illiterate people to disturb the development of this country,” Mr al Marzooq claimed. He said that some of those who received Bahraini passports live abroad. “In 2006, people watched buses coming from Saudi. They brought them to the polling station on the causeway and told them who to vote for.”
Mr Sharif, who is a Sunni opponent of the government, said: “The government has lost the popular vote, so they want to import loyalist voters.”He, too, claimed that the naturalised voters were “typically illiterate people that are easily manipulated” from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Pakistan. “They tend to be poor people dependent on government give-aways and small government jobs.
“In swing districts they can easily beat you,” he said, estimating that about 15 per cent of the country’s population of about 728,000 have been naturalised for political ends. “This is big-scale fraud.”
The pro-government candidate, Mr al Rayes, said he has heard such allegations “but I can’t see any proof”. He also rebutted other allegations that the government tells the security forces whom to vote for. Mr al Rayes said he has not seen any evidence of that.
Another of Mr Sharif’s claims is that the government has withheld the addresses of voters so “there is no way you can check if they live in the district” and votes can be shifted to tightly contested races.
He said instead of conducting voting locally, 10 polling centres have been established, where anyone can go, “to hide these unknown voters”.
Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, which has been banned, said: “They keep them far away from cities. They are out in the middle of nowhere. There is an engine, a brain, of oppression behind it – the government decides who wins.”
Earlier this month, the government took control of an organisation that was involved in monitoring the last election, the Bahrain Human Rights Society. A Bahraini official was put in charge of the organisation after the government determined that it was “only serving one segment of society,” suggesting the group only defends Shiites.
The group’s leaders say they intend to monitor the polls anyway.
The government has recently announced that civil society groups will be allowed to monitor the election, but international organisations will be banned.Mr Alekry, the president of BTS, said international organisations will not be allowed to take part.
“We want not only local, but international monitoring, because our experience is limited. It’s not a perfect situation. We will monitor with limited financial and human resources and not enough time to prepare.”
The opposition groups allege that the government has formed civil society organisations, disparagingly known as Government-Operated NGOs, or gongos, to report the election in a positive light. “Each society that they don’t like, they create an equivalent gongo,” said Munira Fakhro, another candidate for the National Democratic Action Society, said.
“The government establishes them, finances them and supports them, but they look like they are civil society.”
“This is open and obvious. They don’t care. They are taking extreme measures to pick which candidates win,” Ms Fakhro said.