By-elections in Bahrain were hit by low turnout of about 17 per cent as opposition groups boycotted what they regarded as sham polls.
The poor participation undermines the government’s attempts to move the political process forwards after pro-democracy protests earlier this year.
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Elections on Saturday were held amid battles between the security forces and youths trying to reach the epicentre of the Bahrain uprising – Pearl roundabout – which was destroyed in the aftermath of March’s crackdown.
The majority Shia Muslim community led demonstrations earlier this year calling for more democratic rights. But amid rising disturbances on the streets, the minority Sunni-dominated government launched a violent crackdown on the protests in in mid-March, calling on Saudi-led Gulf troops to support their action.
Since then, hundreds have been arrested and thousands of protest sympathisers have lost their jobs.
About 40 people, mainly protesters, died in the violence – a large number for this tiny but strategically vital island of 600,000 nationals and another 600,000 expatriates.
Amid some international pressure, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has introduced a series of reconciliatory measures, such as an independent commission to investigate the violence, and has called for demonstrators to be allowed to return to work.
But the opposition complained of continuing discrimination and harsh security measures against demonstrators.
The by-elections were held for 18 seats vacated by the resignation of members of the main Shia opposition group, al-Wefaq, during the troubles.
Four candidates won in uncontested seats. Of the roughly 144,000 Bahrainis eligible to vote in the 14 seats that were contested, about 25,000 voted – a turnout of 17.4 per cent.
The low turnout – which came in below the government’s hopes and in line with al-Wefaq forecasts – underlines the group’s potency as a political force as the government tries to foster new interlocutors for the Shia community.
The government argued that turnout was high in some constituencies, but lower in others because of intimidation of voters and candidates by the opposition.
“It was not easy for the voters,” said Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, the justice minister.
Opposition groups rejected these claims, pointing instead to the security forces locking down some Shia villages and using teargas, shotguns and rubber bullets to stop youths reaching the symbolic Pearl roundabout over the weekend.
Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary-general of al-Wefaq, said the political and security crisis would continue unless the government launched real reforms resulting in a transfer to “true democracy” to meet the demands of the people.
He welcomed Barack Obama’s speech at the UN last week, in which the US president backed recent reforms but asked Manama to do more and enter into meaningful dialogue with al-Wefaq.
“We ask Obama and other leaders to put their speeches into practice,” he said, arguing that support for democracy in Bahrain would underpin democratic change in other states, such as Egypt.