Bahrain aims to control vote amid Sunni-Shi’ite tension

October 21, 2010

bahrainBahrain’s elections on Saturday are unlikely to bring change to an assembly with little clout, but the government is leaving nothing to chance as it tightens security and makes it tougher for majority Shi’ites to vote.

Critics say densely populated Shi’ite areas are not represented in parliament according to their share in Bahrain’s 1.3 million population, and in some cases Shi’ite voters, of whom 300,000 are registered — have been moved to Sunni areas where their votes have less impact.

(Photo: Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, December 15, 2009/Stephanie McGehee)

“The types of rules and laws that are passed still favour the Sunni elites over the majority Shi’ite population,” said Theodore Karasik of Dubai’s Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “The Shi’ites are angered because they want more inclusion in decision-making and they want more jobs in government ministries, but these kinds of legislations don’t come up.”

The Gulf Arab state’s largest Shi’ite political group Wefaq, holding 17 out of 40 seats in the current assembly, is competing with Sunni Islamist groups and secular group Waad for parliament seats in a country whose stability is important for Washington.

Shi’ites say they have witnessed discrimination in housing, healthcare and access to government jobs. They also say the government has settled foreign Sunnis to offset Shi’ite numbers.

The government of Bahrain, a regional banking hub that hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, denies all those claims. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia sees Bahrain’s Sunni Arab dynasty as a bulwark against Iranian designs on the region, where rivalry between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam dates back to the period after the death of the Prophet Mohammad almost 14 centuries ago.

Read the full story by Frederik Richter here. See also our Factbox – Key political risks to watch in Bahrain.

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