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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Bahrain goes to polls as Shiite opposition boycotts........

MANAMA: Bahrain holds legislative elections on Saturday for the first time since a 2011 uprising, despite a boycott by the Shiite opposition that led the pro-democracy movement. 

The polls are being contested without a compromise in sight between authorities in the Sunni-ruled monarchy and the opposition, as highlighted by the two sides in interviews on Friday. 

The Gulf state's electorate of almost 350,000 is being called to choose 40 deputies, with most of the 266 candidates being Sunnis. 

Al-Wefaq, the main opposition group, warned that failure by the kingdom's rulers to loosen their grip on power could trigger a surge in violence. 

For her part, information minister Samira Rajab stressed that the government would not tolerate "chaos, unrest and foreign meddling" — a reference to Shiite Iran. 

The opposition's month-long uprising in early 2011 was crushed by the authorities. 

On the eve of elections, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the Shiite village of Diraz in support of the boycott, with police firing tear gas to disperse them. 

"Boycott! Boycott!" they chanted. Shiite demonstrators frequently clash with security forces in villages outside the capital, and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the uprising. 

The political rivals have struggled to bury their differences through a so-called "national dialogue" that fell apart despite several rounds of negotiations. 

Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman told AFP the opposition could only resume talks if the government agreed to implement reforms in line with a strict timetable. 

He warned that failure to reach a political accord could spark an "explosion" of violence in Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and a partner in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. 

The boycott stems from "the people's demand for democratic reforms," he said, predicting a maximum 30 percent turnout. 

The opposition wants a "real" constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister independent from the Al-Khalifa royal family. 

But the Saudi-backed Sunni dynasty that rules over the majority Shiite kingdom has rejected the demand. 

In October, a court banned Al-Wefaq for three months for violating a law on associations. 

The movement refused to resume talks with the authorities in September despite a new proposal announced by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. 

Salman said he did not expect the opposition to reach an agreement with the government, following Shiite-led protests he said had cost "at least 100 lives" over the past three years.