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Supporters of Bahrain's Sunni rulers rebuff election boycott by protesting Shiite groups
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) ' Rebuffing an election boycott by Shiite protest groups, supporters of the country's Sunni rulers voted in a special parliamentary election that is likely to reinforce divisions after seven months of unrest in the Gulf's main Arab Spring showdown.
Bahrain's confrontation between a reform-seeking Shiite majority and Sunni rulers holding near-total power remains one of the trickiest puzzles for the West as the Middle East's politics are redrawn.
The Shiites' calls for a greater say in national affairs echoes the same notes as in other Arab nations whose uprisings gained clear Western support. But Bahrain's Sunni rulers have strong cards that most others cannot play, including a critical military partnership with Washington as hosts to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet ' the Pentagon's front-line force against potential threats from Iran.
"This is a fake election. It's useless," said one man among a group of young Shiites gathered in streets littered with trash, rocks and tear gas canisters from clashes the night before.
"We don't have any stake in the political system anymore," said the man, who only gave his first name, Ali, fearing retaliation by the authorities.
The elections were needed to fill 18 seats in the 40-member parliament left vacant by a mass resignation of Shiite lawmakers to protest crackdowns, including deadly clashes, arrest sweeps and workplace purges. The boycott call by the main Shiite blocs effectively turned their backs on Bahrain's political system and staked their hopes in an embarrassingly low turnout at the elections.
But Bahrain's state TV announced the turnout at 51 percent in the districts with open seats ' lower than the 67 percent turnout in last year's full parliamentary election, but an apparent strong reply against the boycott.
Most of the voters who turned out Saturday appeared to be supporters of the government.
Full results are expected by early Sunday. But the most important outcome was already determined by the Shiite boycott: The opposition must now decide whether to escalate public protests as their best remaining option.
"Leaving the political process opens up the obvious question of where to go from here," said Toby Jones, an expert on Bahraini affairs at Rutgers University. "This opens the door for groups calling for more confrontation."
More than 30 people have died in the unrest and hundreds have been arrested, including activists sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of plotting to overthrow the ruling system.
In recent months, Bahrain has faced near daily skirmishes after security forces crushed a wave of large-scale marches and sit-ins inspired by other Arab uprisings. The current clashes are isolated in Shiite neighborhoods and pose no direct danger to the leadership. But they highlight the deep frustrations among many Shiites ' who account for about 70 percent of the population ' and the growing belief in poorer districts that mass protests are the only way to force change.
Hours after the voting ended, clashes raged in some mainly Shiite areas into early Sunday.
Shiites claim they suffer widespread discrimination, including being blocked from top political and government posts. They also bristle at daily evidence of perceived second-class status, such as security forces bringing aboard Sunni Muslims from other Arab nations and south Asia under a government program that grants citizenship in exchange for loyalty.
"Each side sees itself as the legitimate voice of the country and the others as those standing in the way," said Jones. "The election just drives home this message. It's political theater on both sides to make a point."
Security was boosted to high-alert levels for the election. Police set up dozens of checkpoints and patrolled key roadways.
An election coordinator, Brig. Abdullah bin Saif Al Nuaimi, said several arrests were made for trying to disrupt the voting, including throwing stones at cars coming to polling stations.
The voting in predominantly Shiite areas appeared light. At one polling station in the Manama neighborhood of Sanabis, which has been the scene of clashes since Friday, only about 30 ballots were cast in the first four hours of voting.
But at a polling station in Hamad Town, a mixed Sunni-Shiite area, the voting was noticeably stronger with a steady stream of people. Voting was also brisk at special locations, including a mall in the capital, Manama.
Bahrain's parliament has little direct powers, but it carries important symbolism as part of limited political reforms started about a decade ago. It also is one of the few popularly elected bodies permitted by the Arab kings and sheiks who rule the Gulf from Kuwait to Oman.
"It was my duty to vote and show I have solidarity with the leaders of Bahrain," said Samira, a 32-year-old Sunni, who only gave her first name for fear of being harassed after she voted in Sanabis.
Bahrain's prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, claimed the voting "asserted that we are on the right path toward a better future." A government-issued guide to the elections carried the heading: "From anarchy to action."
The U.S. has urged all parties in Bahrain to restart reconciliation talks, which were opened by the government in July and produced a set of proposals that included boosting the powers of the parliament. But the U.S. has been careful not to reprimand Bahrain's leaders too harshly in public to avoid jeopardizing strategic bonds in the Gulf.
Bahrain has the backing of powerful neighbors. A Gulf force, led by Saudi Arabia, was dispatched to Bahrain in March to help prop up the 200-year-old Sunni dynasty.
But the protests across the region have stirred some small steps toward more political openness.
The United Arab Emirates also held elections Saturday for seats on a national advisory council, which has no legislative powers but is promoted by Emirati officials as part of a widening "experiment" in allowing a greater public voice in affairs. The UAE's elections will be decided by about 129,000 hand-picked voters.
Next week, Saudi Arabia plans to hold municipal elections after a nearly two-year delay. Women, however, will be still barred from participating or voting.