Bahrain votes amid Shia boycott calls

KONFRONTASI-Polls have opened for Bahrain's legislative elections, the first since a 2011 uprising, but the Shia opposition that led the pro-democracy movement said it would not take part in the vote.

The elections are being contested without a compromise in sight between authorities in the Sunni-ruled monarchy and the opposition, as highlighted by the two sides in interviews on Friday.

The Gulf state's electorate of almost 350,000 is being called to choose 40 deputies, with most of the 266 candidates being Sunnis.

Al-Wefaq, the main opposition group, warned that failure by the kingdom's rulers to loosen their grip on power could trigger a surge in violence.

Khalil AlMarzooq, a member of Al-Wefaq in London, said the opposition did not stand to gain anything from the election.

"There's no justice in Bahrain; there's no independence of the judiciary. Unless we agree on the system that represents people and make officials accountable and save people and protect their rights, we can't participate," AlMarzooq told Al Jazeera. 

"We participated in 2006 and 2010 with a high turnout with the aim of changing the political system to protect the people's rights and interests but we couldn't achieve anything."

AlMarzooq said Al-Wefaq was open to dialogue but that it had to be serious dialogue. 

For her part, Information Minister Samira Rajab stressed that the government would not tolerate "chaos, unrest and foreign meddling" - a reference to Shia Iran.

The opposition's month-long uprising in early 2011 was crushed by the authorities.

The Gulf kingdom has been ruled by the Khalifa Sunni dynasty since 1783, in a country where the Shia community today accounts for about 70 percent of the Muslim population.

The opposition is calling for what it describes as a "real constitutional monarchy," with an elected prime minister who is independent from the ruling family.

Commenting on the opposition boycott, Sheikh Ali Salman, general secretary of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, said: "What a failure it is for the government to beg for a vote from a people who are marginalised by them.

"The government is looking for the impossible from any rational person."

On the eve of elections, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the Shia village of Diraz in support of the boycott, with police firing tear gas to disperse them.

"Boycott! Boycott!" they chanted.

Shia demonstrators frequently clash with security forces in villages outside the capital Manama, and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the uprising.

'National dialogue'

The political rivals have struggled to bury their differences through a so-called "national dialogue" that fell apart despite several rounds of negotiations.

Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman told the AFP news agency the opposition could only resume talks if the government agreed to implement reforms in line with a strict timetable.

He warned that failure to reach a political accord could spark an "explosion" of violence in Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and a partner in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has seized territory in Syria and Iraq.

The boycott stems from "the people's demand for democratic reforms," he said, predicting a maximum 30 percent turnout.

The opposition wants a "real" constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister independent from the Al-Khalifa royal family.

But the Saudi-backed Sunni dynasty that rules over the majority Shia kingdom has rejected the demand.
In October, a court banned Al-Wefaq for three months for violating a law on associations.

The movement refused to resume talks with the authorities in September despite a new proposal announced by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

Salman said he did not expect the opposition to reach an agreement with the government, following Shia-led protests he said had cost "at least 100 lives" over the past three years.[MR/ALJAZEEERA]