(Updates with voter turnout in fourth paragraph.)
Sept. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Bahrain today held special parliamentary elections boycotted by the country’s largest Shiite Muslim bloc a day after stepped-up protests in Shiite villages and riots in Manama’s biggest shopping mall.
The vote was called to fill 18 seats in the 40-member parliament vacated by the al-Wefaq group, the biggest Shiite party. Its lawmakers quit in objection to a crackdown on mostly Shiite demonstrators who held rallies in February and March during which at least 35 people died.
“With the start of polls for the special elections, we offer our condolences to every person aspiring for freedom and justice on this day of mourning democracy,” al-Wefaq said on Twitter today.
Four candidates have already been declared winners after their competition withdrew, according to state-run Bahrain News Agency. The news service said 84 candidates had registered to compete for the 18 seats. Voter turnout was “no less than 51 percent,” Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa said in a news conference an hour after polls closed. The number of eligible voters was 187,080.
Three of the winners are Shiites, including Sawsan al- Taqawi, who said in a Sept. 19 interview she came under pressure not to run, including attacks on social-networking websites and the defacing of her campaign posters.
“You can make change when you’re inside,” al-Taqawi said. “We’re a legislative body. But when you’re outside, in a protest, you will not trigger change.”
The justice minister said in an interview today the voting was “going smoothly” and no incidents were reported more than five hours after polls opened.
As polls closed in the evening, the Interior Ministry said 22 “vandals” were detained today after attempting to “obstruct the electoral process,” BNA said. The ministry’s Brig. Gen. Abdullah al-Nuaimi said groups of “saboteurs” closed roads leading to some of the polling stations, others poured oil on the street in front of a voting center and some threw stones at cars in the parking lot of another, BNA said.
In postings on Twitter, the opposition reported confrontations between security forces and protesters in several Shiite villages starting in the afternoon. A government helicopter could be heard circling the capital Manama and its suburbs.
“There’s an atmosphere of intimidation, of scaring people who want to vote and run,” the minister said. “It’s not right to respond to a constitutional duty with intimidation.”
The elections come a day after riots at City Center and Shiite protesters tried to reach the former Pearl Roundabout, the center of the February-March demonstrations. Dozens of armored vehicles were deployed in the past few days in the vicinity of the former roundabout, which the government has destroyed and replaced with an intersection.
The government set up polling stations at a mall, the airport and the Bahrain Race circuit, where voters, fearing intimidation in their village polling stations, can cast their votes with relative anonymity.
Abdul-Jalil Khalil, who headed al-Wefaq’s parliamentary bloc, denied his group pressured Shiites not to vote, saying people were free to participate. He said if voter turnout was low, it’s because the 18 vacant seats represented areas that were an “opposition bastion.”
“It’s normal that the supporters of the opposition will not go to vote,” Khalil said in a telephone interview. “People are not convinced that these elections will solve Bahrain’s problems.”
Shiites running for election “were ordinary people who know nothing about politics,” Khalil said. “They won’t be effective representatives.”
In the Shiite village of Sanabis, voter turnout at the polling station of Sanabis Intermediate School for Girls was low, according to Judge Mohammed Mijbil. Voting cards filled up less than a quarter of each of three clear boxes halfway through the polling day.
The streets of the village were empty, strewn with garbage bags, rocks and old furniture used by the residents yesterday to block the street in protest over the elections.
The February-March demonstrations were held to demand full democratic representation and equal economic opportunities for the majority Shiite population. The country’s hereditary Sunni rulers invited troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies to help restore order, and accused Iran of fomenting the unrest.
Full-scale protests have stopped, though tensions persist, with almost daily, low-level rallies in Shiite villages to which government troops respond with tear gas and rubber bullets.
--Editors: James Kraus, Vince Golle
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