Islamists Dominate Bahrain Elections
Sunday, November 26, 2006; 11:36 AM
MANAMA, Bahrain -- Islamist candidates swept to victory in Bahrain's parliamentary election, splitting the vote between hardline Shiite and Sunni Muslims while female and liberal candidates fared poorly in the U.S.-allied kingdom, preliminary results showed Sunday.
With several races headed for runoffs, Saturday's vote appeared to reinforce the sectarian divide between the Persian Gulf island's governing Sunni minority and the underprivileged Shiites who make up two-thirds of its 700,000 people.
The results also underlined a deepening social and religious conservatism in Bahrain, which has been among the most liberal of Arab states in the region and is host to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Of 18 women running, only one won outright _ Latifa al-Gaoud, who was unopposed in her district. Another, Munira Fakhro, advanced to a runoff next Saturday but faces a tough race against Salah Ali of the pro-government Muslim Brotherhood, a hardline Sunni group.
No secular liberal candidates won seats outright. At least four were headed for tough second-round battles with Islamic hard-liners.
The runoffs will decide whether parliament's 40-member elected chamber is dominated by pro-government Sunnis or an opposition alliance of Shiites and liberals. The latter would likely press for broad reforms to Bahrain's limited democracy, under which the ruling Khalifa family controls most levers of power.
The religious sweep in Bahrain mirrored results of elections in Iraq, Egypt and Palestinian territories, where Muslim hard-liners have made inroads. The vote was watched closely by neighboring Arab countries planning similar steps toward democracy or dealing with their own Shiite populations clamoring for power.
"It looks like our parliament will be dominated by people who see themselves only as Sunnis or Shiites," said Fowad Shihab, a political science professor at Bahrain University. "These are the same Islamists that are gaining control across the Arab world."
The Shiite al-Wefaq movement, which boycotted Bahrain's 2002 election, emerged with 16 seats, the best showing of any party.
"The people trusted us and we did well," said al-Wefaq leader Sheik Ali Salman, a Shiite cleric in a rolled white turban and black cloak.
Analysts expect al-Wefaq to throw their runoff support to liberals, most of whom face Sunni opponents from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movement.
The election, Bahrain's third parliamentary vote, captivated the nation with a rowdy, sometimes dirty campaign featuring nightly rallies in hundreds of tents scattered across the island's dusty neighborhoods.
Saturday brought a huge but orderly turnout. The government said 72 percent of the 300,000 eligible voters cast ballots.
Among Bahrain's neighbors, Kuwait allowed women to vote and run for office for the first time in elections held in June. No female candidates won, but a woman was given a Cabinet post.
Qatar and Oman have held low-level elections and the United Arab Emirates has announced similar plans. Saudi Arabia held municipal elections but, alone among Mideast nations, barred women's participation either as voters or candidates.