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Friday, 16 February, 2001, 15:42 GMT
Landslide win for Bahrain reforms
Prime Minister Khalifa al-Khalifa (left) is thought to oppose parts of the reform package
Voting comes amid rumours of a ruling family split
A referendum on political reform in the tiny Gulf emirate of Bahrain has given overwhelming public support for the ruling family's proposals.

Figures released by the Justice Ministry said more than 98% of voters backed the reforms, which are due to be implemented by 2004.

We are honoured with your concurrence to declare Bahrain as a constitutional monarchy

Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa
Under the reforms, the country would become a constitutional monarchy with an elected lower chamber of parliament and an independent judiciary.

The reforms would put Bahrain in a class of its own in the oil-rich region, where absolute rulers are the norm and political freedoms are highly restricted.

Women would be able both to vote in parliamentary elections and stand for office - another first for the region.

Emir Sheikh Hamad Al-Khalifa
Sheikh Hamad took over from his late father in 1999
The official Gulf News Agency said 196,262 out of 217,000 eligible Bahrainis over the age of 20 - or about 90% - had voted in the two-day referendum which ended on Thursday.

The agency reported that the country's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, said he was "honoured" by the result.

"We have pledged in the charter to establishing a bicameral system and the holding of general elections for the representative chamber in order that democracy comes in harmony with the formula of a kingdom," his statement said.

Partial restoration

The national charter should give Bahrain its first elected parliament since 1975, when Sheikh Hamad's late father dissolved a chamber that had come into being two years earlier.

Bahraini voter
Voting took place in a mood of optimism and celebration
An independent legislature has been a key demand of Bahrain's Shi'a majority, which has had had almost no political power since the parliament was dissolved.

The Shi'a mounted violent opposition to the Sunni ruling class in the 1990s.

Nearly 40 people were killed in riots, bombing and arson between 1994 and 1999.

Reformist ruler

Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa succeeded his father, Sheikh Issa in 1999 and he has moved towards reform since then.

He has released hundreds of political prisoners, the last batch on the day before polling.

The atmosphere was one of celebration at polling stations, as men and women queued - in separate lines - to cast their votes.

"A parliament will open the doors to democracy", a voter in a predominantly Shi'a village said after voting.

"It will give the people a chance to participate in building their country", he added.

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See also:

15 Feb 01 | Middle East
Bahrainis hunger for democratic reforms
08 Feb 01 | Middle East
Bahrain amnesty welcomed
30 Sep 00 | Middle East
Politics open up in Bahrain
20 Dec 00 | Middle East
Timeline: Bahrain
21 Dec 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Bahrain
06 Mar 99 | Middle East
Bahrain's ninth al-Khalifa
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