Bahrain's main Shia opposition formation is inching towards majority having got 18 out of 40 seats during Saturday's elections for the country's Lower House of Parliament.
Nine more seats are up for grabs during the second round of polls slated for October 30.
Compared to the authoritarian establishments that dominate the region, Bahrain's Lower House of Parliament is not toothless, as it is authorised to examine and pass legislation proposed by the King or the Cabinet. It also has monitoring powers. However, Bahrain's monarchy-appointed 40-member Upper House, also called the Consultative Council, has the powers to block legislation that the Lower House may have passed. Eight women are among the 127 candidates who have contested elections.
Despite its small size, Bahraini elections have grabbed considerable international attention. The Kingdom is home to the fifth fleet of the United States Navy, which has its footprint spread across the oil-rich Gulf. Analysts point out that the Americans are wary about gains made by Shia parties, suspecting them of having close ties with arch-rival Iran. The Bahraini polls are also being closely monitored by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which has a large Shia minority in its oil-bearing eastern province, which borders Bahrain. Shia assertion in Bahrain, therefore, draws considerable attention in Riyadh. In the previous elections held in 2006, two Sunni hardline Islamist groups, the National Islamic Forum and the Al-Assalah, had secured 12 seats.
Despite the strong showing by the Islamic National Accord Association (INAA), the main Shia group, many observers doubt whether the Sunni monarchy will allow the Shia groups to gain an upper hand in Parliament. Iran's state-run Press TV quoted the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, as saying the government wants to ensure the Shia majority will not come to power. The Iranian station pointed out that at least 23 top opposition figures, who have been recently arrested, have been charged with plotting against the government.