Bahrain’s Shiite-led opposition on Saturday announced a boycott of parliamentary elections next month, saying the vote would cement “totalitarian” Sunni rule in the polarised kingdom.
The tiny Gulf kingdom has been deeply divided since it was rocked by protests led by the Shiite majority in 2011 calling for democratic reforms, namely a constitutional monarchy.
Four opposition groups, including the main Shiite movement Al-Wefaq, also vowed to pursue “peaceful protests” in Bahrain until their demands are met.
King Hamad set elections for a new 40-seat lower house of parliament for November 22, the first such polls since the 2011 protests. Municipal elections will be held simultaneously.
Al-Wefaq, which led the protest movement against the Sunni regime, had made slender gains in the last polls in 2010.
But it withdrew its 18 MPs after the uprising was crushed by the Bahraini government, a key US ally and member of the US-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
In an English-language statement received by AFP, the opposition groups denounced the elections as “a new autocratic step” by the government and urged Bahrainis to join the boycott.
“The fact that the authority has taken this decision… (is) a new autocratic step added to its continuous persistence to maintain its totalitarian rule,” it said.
– ‘Dialogue needed’ –
The statement said all sides in Bahrain must engage “in serious negotiations and dialogue” before any election.
But a proposal by authorities in September to relaunch a national dialogue was given a frosty reception by Al-Wefaq.
The proposal has five core elements, including the redefinition of electoral districts and permission for parliament to question the premier and his ministers.
Parliament would also have a right of approval in the choice of ministers, and the authorities would commit to further judicial reform.
The security forces would also be bound by new codes of conduct.
Sheikh Ali Salman, head of Al-Wefaq, said the proposal “ignores the legitimate demands of the people”.
“The royal family retains all powers — executive, legislative and judicial, in addition to security, information and wealth,” Salman said.
The opposition is demanding an independent election commission and the dissolution of the Consultative Council, parliament’s upper chamber whose members are appointed by the king.
They are also demanding the prime minister be appointed by parliamentary majority, instead of the king.
The opposition took part in two rounds of dialogue after the uprising but withdrew from the talks, saying the authorities were not making enough concessions.
The protests that erupted in Bahrain in February 2011 were crushed a month later by the security forces with support from Saud-led troops but smaller protests still take place in Shiite villages and have occasionally triggered clashes with police.
Hundreds of Shiite have been arrested and dozens have been tried over their role in the anti-regime protests, some have been also stripped of their nationality by the authorities.
The International Federation for Human Rights says at least 89 people have been killed in Bahrain since the uprising began in February 2011.
Bahrain is a strategic archipelago just across the Gulf from Iran and home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.