Bahrain opposition slams 'ridiculous' official voter turnout rate

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Bahraini youth holding signs calling for the boycott of the parliamentary elections, during a rally in the village of Diraz, west of Manama on November 21, 2014. AFP / Mohammed al-Shaikh

Published Sunday, November 23, 2014

A war of words over the turnout rate in Bahrain's legislative election heightened Sunday, between the authorities and the opposition, with the latter accusing the regime of "misleading the public."

With the vote-counting still underway after Saturday's elections to the 40-member parliament, the focus was on voter turnout, which became a key marker of the election’s validity after Bahrain’s main opposition movement, al-Wefaq, which was banned in October from carrying out any activities for three months for allegedly “violating the law on associations," and four other opposition groups boycotted the polls.

The opposition demand a "real" constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister who is independent from the ruling royal family. But the US and Saudi-backed King Hamad al-Khalifa, whose family has been in power for over 200 years, has refused to yield.

The Bahraini official electoral commission said 51.5 percent of registered voters turned out to vote, but the opposition, which has dismissed the elections as a "farce", slammed the official turnout rate as “ridiculous”, saying that only 30 percent of eligible voters had turned out.

Both sides also traded accusations of electoral malpractice, with the opposition saying it has proof that tens of thousands of people were pressured to vote, while the authorities accused “militants” of preventing others from reaching ballot stations.

”Amusing and ridiculous”

Voting closed at 1900 GMT Saturday after a two-hour extension decided by the electoral commission, in a likely bid to boost turnout.

An hour later the head of the commission, Sheikh Khaled al-Khalifa, who is also justice minister, claimed initial estimates showed 51.5 percent of registered voters turned out to vote.

"Turnout for the legislative elections was 51.5 percent... (and this result) puts an end to confessionalism in Bahrain," he said in reference to the opposition's boycott call.

Al-Wefaq, which withdrew its 17 lawmakers after the regime’s violent crackdown on protests in 2011, called the official turnout rate "amusing, ridiculous, and lacking credibility".

Government officials were "trying to fool public opinion and ignore the large election boycott by announcing exaggerated figures," the opposition group said in a statement published early Sunday.

The opposition instead cited a turnout figure of "around 30 percent," allowing a possible five percent difference either way.

It also accused the authorities of making tens of thousands of state employees vote or face consequences.

“Even a 30 percent turnout would not have been possible if the authorities had not pressured and threatened state employees,” the statement said, adding that “80 percent of voters are serving in the security, military and public apparatuses.”

”3,000 political prisoners behind bars”

With Saudi Arabia's help, Bahrain, a country ruled by an unelected monarchy, crushed peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that began on February 14, 2011.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors sent troops into Bahrain in March 2011, reinforcing a crackdown that led to accusations of serious human rights violations.

At least 89 people are estimated to have been killed and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the uprising erupted.

In a press conference held by the National Democratic Opposition Parties at al-Wefaq headquarters on Saturday, al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman said the regime continued to commit major human rights violations.

“The elections are being held while more than 3,000 prisoners are behind bars, including Ibrahim Sharif, who is the former chief of the National Democratic Action Society, and many other prominent political figures”, said Salman, adding that the authorities have repeatedly misled the public in the past.

Today, Bahrain, a key ally of Washington and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, has the distinction of being the country with the second highest prison population rate per 100,000 amongst Arab states in the West Asian and North African region.

Over 200 minors are being held within these prisons, forced to stay side-by-side with adults, and some have faced torture and sexual abuses.

Authorities ignored pleas by human rights groups to release political prisoners, instead increasing the punishment for violent crimes.

Besides imprisonment, 50 Bahrainis have had their citizenship revoked and several have also been deported since Bahrain adopted a law last year stipulating that suspects convicted of "terrorist" acts could be stripped of their nationality.

The Ministry of Interior in November 2012 revoked the nationality of 31 pro-democracy activists in the name of the Bahrain Citizenship Law, “under which the nationality of a person can be revoked if he or she causes harm to state security,” Amnesty International said in a report.

“The Bahraini authorities are running out of arguments to justify repression. They are now resorting to extreme measures such as jail sentences and revoking nationality to quell dissent in the country, rather than allowing people to peacefully express their views,” Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Hassiba Sahraoui, said in the report.

Moreover, government officials Saturday also accused “militants of provoking incidents” and blocking roads in areas of the capital Manama in order to prevent people from voting.

Clashes erupted between youths and security forces, with the latter firing tear gas and rubber-coated bullets at protesters, in many villages around Bahrain Saturday.

“Peaceful protesters in more than 50 areas around Bahrain were violently attacked and many have been left with shotgun injuries,” Salman added, urging UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “to sanction a political solution to the Bahraini crisis.”

(Al-Akhbar, AFP)

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