Bahrainis head to the polls Saturday but despite a record number of people vying for seats, a ban on opposition candidates means it will bring no meaningful change, rights groups said.
More than 330 candidates, including a record 73 women, are competing to join the 40-seat council of representatives – the lower house of parliament that advises King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who has ruled since his father died in March 1999.
This is up from the 293 people – including 41 women – that ran for parliament in the last election in 2018.
But the country, ruled by a Sunni dynasty, has barred its two main opposition groups from fielding candidates — the Shiite Al-Wefaq and secular Waad parties which were dissolved in 2016 and 2017.
“This election will not introduce any change,” said Ali Abdulemam, a UK-based Bahraini human rights activist.
“Without the opposition we will not have a healthy country,” he told AFP.
The restrictions have ignited calls for a boycott of Saturday’s elections which come more than a decade after a 2011 crackdown on Shiite-led protesters demanding political reforms.
Since then, authorities have imprisoned hundreds of dissidents – including Al-Wefaq’s leader Sheikh Ali Salman – and stripped many of their citizenship.
Amnesty International said Thursday the vote is being held in an “environment of political repression.”
“In Bahrain today, there is no genuine, political opposition,” said Amnesty’s deputy regional director Amna Guellali.
Manama insists that “the Kingdom does not tolerate discrimination, persecution or the promotion of division based on ethnicity, culture or faith.”
It claims neighbouring Iran trains infiltrators and armed groups in order to topple the government — an accusation Tehran denies.
In 2018, Bahrain passed so-called political and civil isolation laws, barring former opposition party members from running for parliament and sitting on the boards of civil organizations.
Citing Bahraini civil society figures, Human Rights Watch in October said the retroactive bans have affected between 6,000 and 11,000 Bahraini citizens.
The elections “offer little hope for any freer and fairer outcomes,” HRW said.
The latest vote comes less than a week after Pope Francis concluded a landmark visit that aimed to promote interfaith dialogue – his second to a Gulf nation following a 2019 trip to the United Arab Emirates.
Without singling out specific countries, the pontiff during his visit urged respect for human rights, saying it is vital they are “not violated but promoted.”
Home to 1.4 million people, Bahrain is made up of one large island and around 34 smaller ones situated off the east coast of Saudi Arabia, to which it is connected by a causeway. At just 700 square kilometres (270 square miles), it is the smallest country in the Middle East.
Located just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, the island state is a strategic Western ally and normalised ties with Israel in 2020. It hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet with around 7,800 US military personnel deployed in the country.
In 2018, Britain opened its first permanent military base in the Middle East since 1971, near Bahrain’s capital Manama where it deploys around 300 troops.