INTERNATIONAL

Bahrain holds first poll in 29 years

MANAMA (BAHRAIN) MAY 9. Bahraini voters today went to the polls for the first time in 29 years to elect the members of five local bodies. The vote was the first stage in a democratisation process that will culminate with Parliamentary elections in September.

All Bahraini citizens, as well as all citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council member-States who reside or own property here, are entitled to vote. Of the 316 candidates, 31 are women — a remarkable number given that women have yet to win the right to vote in nearby Kuwait, a more established democracy, and are banned from even driving in Saudi Arabia.

Of the more than 237,000 eligible constituents, authorities expected a turnout of at least 70 per cent. Voters will choose 10 members to each of the five local bodies. Two candidates from the southern district have returned unopposed.

The poll is part of the implementation of the National Action Charter, which was adopted after a referendum in 2001. After that vote, the King, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, ordered the release of all political prisoners, withdrew special security laws and promulgated a new Constitution.

Opposition groups, who had thrown the island into turmoil in the mid-1990s, have begrudged the process ever since, but the public have been far more enthusiastic.

Bahraini dissidents, who had hoped for a more thorough democratisation, complain that the heads of the municipal bodies to be constituted after today's vote will be appointed. The Parliament will also compose of two bodies of equal strength — one chosen through free franchise and the other to be nominated.Municipal elections were last held here in 1957. The last elections to any organisation were held in 1973, when a Parliament was chosen. That Parliament was dissolved in 1975 and the demand for Parliamentary restoration was a major cause of the agitations that rocked the island from 1994 to '96.

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