Shiite Candidates Expect to Gain in Landmark Elections in Bahrain

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The Shiite Muslim majority in this small U.S.-allied Gulf nation hoped to increase its political power in parliamentary elections, but preliminary results announced by Bahrain early Sunday were inconclusive.

With similar tensions weighing heavily on neighboring Arab countries planning their own steps toward democracy, campaigning in Bahrain was marred by sectarian fear-mongering and a backlash against 18 women candidates. Voting also bore signs of organized corruption.

Shiite Muslim parties and pro-government Sunnis did well in the preliminary results, but neither won a clear majority. At least six races appeared to be heading toward a runoff, scheduled for Dec. 2. Those races are expected to be hotly contested, pitting pro-government Sunnis against liberal reform candidates, who are mainly Sunni.

Bahrain could end up with an opposition parliament if the liberal reform candidates prevail, because they are expected to ally with the Shiite parties.

Such results are likely to embolden the Shiites, who represent the majority of Bahrain's population. Allied with the liberal reformers, they are expected to present a strong front calling for greater democracy.

Turnout in Saturday's vote was 72 percent of the 300,000 eligible voters — 20 points higher than the last polls in 2002. The final tally was expected later Sunday, but with more than 200 candidates vying for 40 National Assembly seats, it was little surprise that at least six seats appeared headed runoffs.

Many voters played down the significance of the vote, only the second in recent years for this island state where the government has long been controlled by the family of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.

The 2002 election — the first since parliament was dissolved in 1975 — was marred by a boycott by opposition Shiites and liberals.

No matter what the results, the power of those elected remain limited. The National Assembly is tempered by the 40 members of the upper chamber appointed by King Hamad, who must approve any legislation. Opposition members say the system is designed to preserve Sunni dominance.

Bahrain's vote has been a landmark for women, who failed to win seats in 2002. This year they are guaranteed a seat, since pro-government candidate Latifa al-Gaoud was running uncontested. She will be the first female legislator in the Gulf.

None of the 17 other female candidates scored a win in the preliminary results, but one — Munira Fakhro a liberal reformer — appeared likely to qualify for the runoff where she would face a hardline pro-government Sunni candidate.

Among Bahrain's neighbors, Kuwait allowed women to vote and run for office for the first time in elections held in June. No female candidates won, but a woman was given a Cabinet post.

Qatar and Oman have held low-level elections and the United Arab Emirates has announced similar plans. Saudi Arabia held municipal elections but, alone among Mideast nations, barred women's participation.

In Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, opposition backers worried a sophisticated campaign of dirty tricks and corruption would skew the voting in the government's favor.

In September, leaked documents depicted an alleged government scheme to weaken the country's long-oppressed Shiites, who make up about two-thirds of the population. The plan called for bringing in Saudi voters from the pro-government al-Dosari clan to vote in Bahrain, while handing Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis from other countries, including the South Asian nation of Pakistan.

Several irregularities Saturday appeared to lend credence to the allegations, which the government has denied.

While international observers were blocked from monitoring the polls, dozens of Saudi nationals holding dual Bahraini citizenship appeared to be voting at a polling station on the causeway at the Saudi border.

In the capital, Manama, voters were turned away because of apparent computer glitches. In the Muharraq suburb, election monitor Mohammed Hussaini said some voters arrived clad in Pakistani national dress but displayed legitimate credentials.

Information Minister Mohammed Abdel Ghaffar said small incidents were bound to happen, but said he was unaware of any major voting violations.