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Experts cast doubt on upcoming Bahrain elections

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 21, 2017 Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa takes part in a bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump at a hotel in Riyadh. – As Bahrainis head to the polls on November 24, 2018, the validity of this year’s parliamentary elections has been brought into question after members of the dissolved opposition were banned from running. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP)

Bahrainis head to the polls Saturday, but experts have questioned the value of a parliamentary election in which dissolved opposition groups have been banned from taking part.

The country’s two main opposition groups, the Shiite Al-Wefaq and secular Waad, were barred from fielding candidates, prompting renewed calls for a boycott.

The tiny Gulf kingdom has been hit by ongoing unrest since 2011, when security forces crushed Shiite-led protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.

The Sunni-ruled country of around 1.4 million people has a majority Shiite population, according to unofficial estimates contested by the government.

Neil Partrick, a specialist in Gulf Arab politics, said Bahrain’s elections “have lost all practical and political meaning” since the 2010 boycott by Al-Wefaq — the main movement representing the country’s Shiite population.

“The subsequent outlawing of Al-Wefaq, and of the relatively liberal, cross-sect, Waad trend, has merely underlined the meaninglessness of Bahraini elections,” he told AFP.

“Elections can still serve as a prestige vehicle for individuals seeking to present themselves as representative of the wider national community, however they have no political or practical substance regardless of whether boycotts are called for or adhered to.”

Opposition leader imprisoned
Opposition parties shunned the last elections in 2014, the first since the 2011 crackdown, denouncing the vote as a “farce”.

A court banned Al-Wefaq in 2016 for “harbouring terrorism”, inciting violence and encouraging demonstrations which threatened to spark sectarian strife.

Bahrain, a key ally of the United States and home to the US Fifth Fleet, regularly accuses Shiite Iran of provoking unrest in the kingdom, which Tehran denies.

Bahrain’s interior ministry said in a statement Wednesday that authorities had “taken all required steps” to make sure the vote passes off safely.

King Hamad in September urged voters to take part in the vote, in which officials say 293 people are running for parliament.

A municipal poll coincides with the parliamentary vote.

Since 2011, authorities have imprisoned hundreds of dissidents — including top Shiite opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, who headed Al-Wefaq — and stripped many of their nationality.

Salman was sentenced to life in prison on November 4 for spying for rival Gulf state Qatar, in a ruling rights groups have called a travesty.

Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, severed ties with Qatar in 2017, banning their citizens from visiting or communicating with the emirate over its alleged ties to both Iran and radical Islamist groups.

Boycott calls
At least six people were detained and charged this month for “obstructing the electoral process”, according to statements released by Bahrain’s public prosecutor.

One of the six was Ali Rashed al-Asheeri, a former member of parliament with Al-Wefaq, according to the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

Asheeri had tweeted that he and his family would boycott the polls.

Al-Wefaq called for a boycott of this year’s parliamentary poll after a law issued in June barred “leaders and members of political associations dissolved for violating the kingdom’s constitution or its laws” from standing.

The 40-seat lower house has the authority to examine and pass legislation proposed by the king or cabinet.

However, the upper chamber, or Consultative Council, appointed by the king, has the power to block legislation passed by the lower house.

Jane Kinninmont, an analyst specialising in Gulf politics, said many citizens will either boycott or “simply not bother to vote” in this year’s elections.

“The elections will not change much as almost all the opposition parties are now banned and their leaders in jail,” she told AFP.

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