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Friday, 25 October, 2002, 09:06 GMT 10:06 UK
Bahrain voters defy boycott call
Women voting in Riffa
Women have been allowed to vote for the first time
The authorities in Bahrain say the turnout at the country's first parliamentary elections in nearly 30 years was more than 50%, despite a call by Islamist parties for a boycott.

Opposition groups representing Bahrain's Shia majority are unhappy that legislative power will be split between the elected chamber and a consultative council to be appointed by the Sunni Muslim ruler, Sheikh Hamad.

But both Sunni and Shia candidates have won the lion's share of seats in the elected chamber according to an AFP report after polling stations closed.

And independent Bahraini researcher Majeed al-Alawi, a former opponent who was exiled for years, told Reuters the result showed that sectarian-driven politics was now in the past.

Bold experiment

"This is an excellent result that makes the position of the government stronger," he said.

Map, BBC
"Bahrainis have proved that they are a civilised people committed to their nation's future and I think the opposition deserve credit for the fact that it all went so peacefully."

A BBC correspondent in Bahrain, Paul Wood, says that by Gulf standards, this election is a bold experiment.

The last parliament was disbanded during a crackdown in 1975.

Women candidates

Sheikh Hamad, who came to power three years ago, promised sweeping political change.

Our correspondent says the process is being watched anxiously by other feudal monarchies around the region - and also by the United States and Britain, which have military bases in the country.

This election is also the first time that women in Bahrain have been able to vote and stand as candidates in a national poll.

Of 177 candidates, eight are women.

No women are expected to be elected but the mere fact that women are standing in a national poll at all will eclipse arguments about turnout, our correspondent says.

The Emir of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa
Sheikh Hamad wants to modernise Bahrain
The Khalifa royal family - which has ruled Bahrain for two centuries - has been steadily liberalising, democratising and improving human rights since the death of the last emir in 1999.

Political prisoners have been released, there are no more secret trials and special security courts and open criticism is permitted.

But Islamist parties still insist the new parliament is undemocratic, pointing out that its 40 elected members will be balanced by another 40 appointed by the king.

The boycott call was spearheaded by the Islamic National Accord Association (INAA), the main political group representing the majority Shia population.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Wood
"It's the first national election in which women are candidates"
See also:

23 Oct 02 | Middle East
10 May 02 | Middle East
26 Mar 02 | Middle East
14 Feb 02 | Middle East
18 Feb 01 | Middle East
05 Feb 02 | Country profiles
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