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Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Bahrain votes in landmark poll
A veiled Bahraini woman casts her vote
About 10% of all Bahrain's candidates are women
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By Julia Wheeler
BBC Gulf correspondent

Large numbers of people are turning out to vote in Bahrain in the first elections for almost three decades.

King Hamad
King Hamad has urged people to exercise voting right
The local polls are seen as the initial step in new moves towards democracy being ushered in rapidly by the country's king.

They also mark the first time women have been able to take part in the electoral process as candidates and voters.

The atmosphere on the island is one of excitement and happiness. People are recognising that elections to local councils with only limited powers are the start of something far larger.

'Dress rehearsal'

Old and young, in wheelchairs, on crutches, bringing children in their arms - the women of Bahrain have been voting in large numbers.

Map, BBC

At some polling stations, observers say it seems there are more women than men casting votes, and 10% of the 300 or so candidates are female.

There is a feeling among some that the elections are almost a dress rehearsal for parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Both King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa and members of opposition groups have urged people to use their right to vote.

The king has said if they do not, they could risk losing that right.

Such is the level of excitement that officials have suggested turnout could run to 70%.

Interest in the region

Other Gulf countries are looking on carefully and with interest.

King Hamad is reportedly careful to stress he is not leading the way in the Gulf, but is doing what is right for Bahrainis and their country.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain's close and powerful neighbour, has expressed hope that the island's people will fulfil their aspirations.

There is no suggestion it will be offering the same opportunity to its people any time soon.

Nevertheless, unofficially, at least one senior Bahraini believes other countries in the region will have to follow these moves towards democracy.

See also:

26 Mar 02 | Middle East
Bahrain blocks opposition websites
14 Feb 02 | Middle East
Bahrain steps up democratic reforms
15 Feb 02 | Middle East
Bahrainis welcome change
18 Feb 01 | Middle East
Bahrain lifts key security law
16 Feb 01 | Middle East
Landslide win for Bahrain reforms
05 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Bahrain
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