Bahrainis vote as women given more freedom

BAHRAINIS turned out in large numbers yesterday for the first national elections in a Gulf Arab state allowing women to vote and run for office.

Election officials said voting was brisk in the first legislative elections in Bahrain in nearly 30 years, despite a boycott by some Shiite Muslims who said the step toward democracy did not go far enough.

Men and women entered polling stations separately to conform with Islamic rules against mixing between the sexes.

"I hope women can get at least one seat," said Suroor Qarooni of the Bahrain Women Society. "Otherwise it will be another failure for us and there will be none other than the society to blame."

Fatima Abdul Aziz, 70, one of several people who stood in a women-only line to vote, said she would not be swayed by the anti-election campaign in her village of Karranah.

"I was asked by people to boycott, but I told them to get lost," she said.

Salama Ali Salim credited the king's wife with bringing her to the polls. Sheika Sabika Al Khalifa visited villages urging women to vote, including Salim's village, Diraz, south of Manama.

"She is what has brought me here," said Salim, 55, who arrived in a wheelchair.

Voters were electing 40 members of parliament, the first such election in Bahrain since 1973. Among the 177 candidates were eight women.

The elections are part of the democratisation process initiated by Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa after he ascended the throne in 1999 following his father's death. Last year, Bahrainis overwhelmingly endorsed a national charter that spelled out the reform programme. In February, Sheik Hamad declared a constitutional monarchy and called legislative elections.

But four political groups, including the Al-Wefaq movement, urged voters to boycott because the parliament's second chamber a council appointed by the king will have as much power as the elected assembly.

Opposition was strongest among Shiites, who represent a slight majority of the kingdom's 400,000 citizens. The ruling family are Sunni Muslims, the mainstream sect of Islam. Bahrain went through a wave of political turbulence after 1994 when Shiites took to the streets to press for democracy and an end to what they perceived to be discrimination in state jobs and services. More than 40 people were killed. The campaign calmed after Sheik Hamad took power. He pardoned more than 1,000 political prisoners and allowed exiles to return.

In Diraz, a Shiite area where the boycott was expected to find many supporters, the main polling station had 2,000 voters in the first three hours, election officials said.

"The turnout is better than expected," said Judge Mohammed Nasruddin Barakat, an official at the Diraz polling station. He said he was surprised by the number of women who voted, most wearing black robes covering all but their eyes.

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