MANAMA, Bahrain – The island-nation of Bahrain is preparing to hold its first elections for a new parliament since Arab Spring-inspired protests erupted nearly four years ago, but many say they are heeding calls by the country's Shiite opposition to boycott the Saturday polls.
The boycott by the opposition al-Wefaq group and four others means the election results are unlikely to diffuse tensions between Bahrain's Sunni monarchy and Shiite activists who continue to protest for greater rights and a greater say in government.
Shiite taxi driver Jaafar Habib, 35, said he will not vote because he doesn't believe that parliament can act independent of Bahrain's Cabinet, which is appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
"The previous years taught me that our parliament is paralyzed of making any changes unless it's what the government wants," he said.
A total of 419 candidates are running for municipal and parliamentary seats on Saturday, according to state media. Any candidates that do not secure more than 50 percent of the vote will head to a runoff a week later.
A-Wefaq — Bahrain's most organized and popular Shiite opposition group — withdrew its 18 members from parliament at the height of protests in 2011. The group says it wants a constitutional monarchy and accuses the government of not engaging in sincere reconciliation efforts.
"These elections are destined to fail because the government is incapable of addressing the political crisis. The next parliament is going to be powerless and unrepresentative," leading al-Wefaq member Abdul-Jalil Khalil told The Associated Press.
The elections are being watched closely by Bahrain's Gulf neighbors and Washington. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and is part of the U.S.-led coalition striking the Islamic State group. Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia is also concerned. Bahraini grievances often spill over into Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, where Shiites have a significant presence.
Not everyone is heeding the boycott. Journalist Jameel al-Mahrai says he still plans to run as an independent, secular candidate. "There is a good chance here to make some change and it is important to have an independent national voice" he said.