In Bahrain, election of a new parliament without a dissenting voice

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Dubai (AFP) – The Bahrainis, whose country hosts the fifth US fleet and a British base, voted Saturday to elect a new Parliament, a poll that takes place without major opposition groups, banned by power.

The 54 polling stations in the small Gulf kingdom must close at 8:00 pm local time (17:00 GMT).

A total of 293 candidates, including 41 women, compete for the 40 seats in Parliament and the votes of 350,000 voters. A municipal ballot coincides with the parliamentary election.

While some voters have received text messages claiming that their name has been stricken from the voters list, the Interior Ministry on Saturday called on Bahrainis to "not pay attention to rumors", accusing Iran of interfering in the electoral process.

This information is wrong, he assured. The ministry accused Tehran of being responsible for 40,000 text messages sent to Bahraini citizens, "aimed at hurting" the elections, and said other messages came from people inside the kingdom.

The power in Manama, key ally of the United States in the region and Saudi Arabia, regularly accuses Shiite Iran, which denies, of causing unrest in the kingdom.

The absence of candidates from the two main banned opposition groups, Al-Wefaq (Shiite) and Waad (secular), sparked calls for a boycott of the elections.

The results are expected in principle Sunday but experts do not expect changes.

– "Silenced" –

The last legislative elections, in 2014, had been boycotted by the opposition who had described them as "farce".

Bahrain has been shaken by unrest since 2011, when security forces repressed protests from the Shia Muslim community demanding a constitutional monarchy and a prime minister from the parliamentary majority.

The country, which has about 1.4 million inhabitants, is governed by Sunnis. Its population is mostly Shiite, according to unofficial estimates challenged by the government.

In the run-up to the vote, the crackdown on dissenting voices intensified, Amnesty International said, noting its "deep concern" at the fate of "imprisoned, intimidated and silenced" opponents.

Before the poll, at least six people were arrested and charged with "obstructing the electoral process," according to the prosecutor.

One of them, Ali Rachid al-Achiri, former Al-Wefaq MP, tweeted that he and his family would boycott the elections, according to the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

On November 4, Sheikh Ali Salman, former head of Al-Wefaq, was sentenced to life imprisonment for "intelligence" with Qatar, a judgment described as parody by human rights defenders.

Like him, hundreds of opponents, mostly Shiites, have also been stripped of their nationality, and dozens more imprisoned.

And a law promulgated in June has banned Waad and Al-Wefaq leaders and members from standing for election.

– No change –

By eradicating any source of contestation, the power has caused the vote to lose "all practical and political significance," Judge Neil Partrick, whose research focuses on the Gulf.

The Lower House of Parliament, which has 40 seats, has the power to consider and adopt bills proposed by the King or Government, but the Upper House, or Advisory Council, made up of personalities appointed by the King, has the power to block them.

Sensitive to boycott calls, many Bahrainis "just will not bother to vote," said Jane Kinninmont, a Gulf specialist for years at the Chatham House Institute in London.

For her, "the elections will not change much since almost all opposition parties are now banned and their leaders jailed."