MANAMA — Bahrain holds parliament elections on Saturday in an environment that rights groups describe as “political repression” after the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab state has dissolved main opposition groups and cracked down on dissent.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am in the Sunni-ruled island state, which crushed a 2011 anti-government uprising led largely by the Shi’ite Muslim community that has long complained of discrimination, a charge denied by authorities.
Ahead of the vote, which includes municipal polls, rights group Amnesty International criticized “highly restrictive measures” that bar members of banned opposition groups and those who 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,” Amnesty said in a statement.
Bahrain, which has jailed thousands, some in mass trials, including opposition leaders, said 344,713 voters were eligible to vote, down from 365,467 in the last polls in 2018.
Just over 500 candidates are running for 40 parliamentary and 30 municipal seats, including 94 women, more than double the 2018 figure, authorities say.
The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy described the vote as a “sham,” saying other legislation linking voter inclusion with previous election participation appeared to target individuals who boycotted earlier polls.
Authorities in Bahrain, which denies charges of human rights abuses and says its elections are democratic, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Its parliament consists of the elected Council of Representatives and the Shura Council, whose 40 members are appointed by the king.
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 recovery plan to grow non-oil GDP by 5% this year and create 20,000 jobs for Bahrainis each year for the next two years.
Many Bahraini Shi’ites complain of facing discrimination in areas such as jobs and government services in the nation of 1.5 million. Authorities reject the accusations and have accused foe Shi’ite Iran of fostering unrest, a charge Tehran denies.
“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 society, told Reuters in Manama. (Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)