11/25/2006, 00.00
BAHRAIN
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For the first time all citizens to vote for parliament

In the 2002 elections widespread protest led to a low turnout. This year's campaign saw intense rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites. Whatever happens experts believe the country will be different. All candidates pledge change.

Manama (AsiaNews/Agencies) – It is Election Day today in Bahrain as voters cast their ballot to renew parliament. After an intense campaign that pitted Sunnis against Shiites, turnout is expected to be heavy with all segments of society participating.

In October 2002, in the first open elections after parliament was dissolved in 1975 Shiites—who represent 60 per cent of the population—and non confessional groups protested against a system that granted the upper house (made up of royal appointees) the same powers as the lower house (entirely elected). Critics say the system is rigged to give Sunnis an unfair advantage to rule.

The current election campaign was quite intense and heated. It included mobile text messages warning voters that a Shia victory would turn Bahrain into a new Iraq and that the fate of local Sunnis would "be like the Iraqi Sunnis who lost their rights and their lives". Other messages warned people that "female candidates will spread immorality".

Shiites, in turn, have accused the Sunni-run government of rigging the election process by gerrymandering the 2002 constituency boundaries.

According to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, some mainly Shia constituencies now contain 10 to 20 times more voters when compared to mixed or Sunni districts. Electing Shia candidates will be made that much more difficult, especially in the first round.

The National Assembly consists of an appointed Consultative Council and an elected Council of Representatives, each comprising 40 members. The Council of Representatives' members are elected by those aged 20 or over for four-year terms from 40 electoral districts.

Each candidate must win at least 50 + 1 per cent of the votes cast in their constituency to be elected, or face off against the second most voted in a second round on December 2.

Resident citizens of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are allowed to vote, including several thousand foreign Sunni Muslims serving in the Bahraini military and security services.

Since political parties are formally banned, the elections are being contested by "political societies".

Women can vote but Bahrain's main Islamist parties are boycotting all 18 female candidates, who face extra hurdles. In fact, unlike male candidates, mosques were off limits to women.

Their participation has sparked a backlash by Islamic conservatives. Women's campaign posters have been defaced. Anonymous fliers have depicted women candidates drinking wine or smoking waterpipes, liberal activities considered un-Islamic, and mobile phone messages have said they will corrupt girls.

In 2002 women failed to win any seats but this year they are guaranteed a seat, since pro-government candidate Latifa al-Gaoud is running uncontested in her riding.

All candidates pledged reforms in a country where the gap between rich and poor is growing. Many locals are worried about unemployment among Bahraini nationals in the context of large numbers of foreign migrant workers

Some 1,500 opposition backers, mostly Shiites, marched Friday in the capital Manama, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been accused in an alleged electoral scam. (PB)

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