MANAMA — Bahrain said voter turnout was more than 70% in general elections on Saturday which rights groups criticized as being held in a climate of “political repression” after the Gulf state dissolved main opposition groups and quashed dissent.
Authorities in the Sunni-ruled state, which crushed a 2011 anti-government uprising led largely by the Shi’ite Muslim community, said the vote was “free” and put turnout at 73%.
There were fewer eligible voters in Saturday’s parliament and municipal polls at 344,713, compared with the previous election in 2018 when turnout was 67% among 365,467 voters.
Ahead of the elections, rights group Amnesty International criticized “highly restrictive measures” barring 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,” it said in a statement.
Bahrain, a U.S. ally, has jailed thousands of people, including opposition leaders, sometimes in mass trials.
London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said legislation on voter inclusion appeared to target those who boycotted earlier polls, calling the vote a “sham.”
Justice Minister Nawaf Al-Ma’awda earlier said the voter list did not include individuals who did not previously vote but that they “were given the chance to then register.”
Just over 500 candidates contested the race including 334 for 40 parliamentary seats. Authorities said the total number of women candidates was more than double the 2018 figure at 94.
They did not say when the results would be announced.
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 were 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 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 jobs and wages were main concerns.
“They need to reassure new graduates that there will be jobs for them … and take care of pensioners,” said Ali Jassem Ibrahim, a 54-year-old defense ministry employee. (Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Ros Russell and David Evans)