Counting is under way in Bahrain after polls have closed in Saturday’s parliamentary election from which opposition groups were barred in a crackdown on dissent in the Western-allied kingdom.
More than 350,000 Bahrainis were eligible to vote, according to Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, adding that there were 54 polling stations across the country.
According to Bahraini state television, turnout for the election was 67 percent, the Reuters news agency reported.
In advance of the vote, however, activists and members of the banned opposition parties called for a boycott of what they describe as “farce” elections, raising doubts about the credibility of the polls. The government says the elections are democratic.
Polls opened at 8am local time (05:00 GMT) and closed at 8pm (17:00 GMT).
Much of the law-making power in Bahrain is in the hands of the National Assembly, which is divided into a lower house and an upper house, the Shura Council.
Members of that council, who can block initiatives by the lower house, are selected by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
According to Middle East expert Bill Law, founder of Gulf Matters, the elections are an attempt by the Bahraini government to give the impression the elections are open and democratic.
“It’s true that there are lots of candidates, but the general feeling among most Bahrainis is ‘what’s the point’,” Law told Al Jazeera, adding that the parliament is seen as largely ineffective.
“For example, it has passed at the direction of the ruling family laws that prevent people who belong to the banned political parties from running in this election,” he added.
Bahrain has the longest-serving prime minister in the world, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in power since 1971.
However, during a failed uprising in 2011, mainly organised by the Shia minority, protesters demanded the prime minister be replaced.
Those protests eventually failed after Saudi Arabia sent in troops to help crush the unrest in a mark of concern that any power-sharing concession by Bahrain could inspire Saudi Arabia’s own Shia minority.
Riyadh regards the neighbouring island nation, which does not possess vast oil wealth like other Gulf states, as a critical ally in its proxy war with Iran in the Middle East.
Since then, Bahrain has seen little to no reform despite repeated calls by both members of the Sunni and Shia communities.
“The country has been in a political stalemate since 2011. There has been no reform,” Law told Al Jazeera.
Bahrain, which is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has closed the main opposition groups, barred their members from running in elections and prosecuted scores of people, many described by human rights groups as activists, in mass trials.
“Clearly, legislatures from the world’s leading democratic states believe that the upcoming election in Bahrain lacks legitimacy. You simply cannot crush, torture and imprison your entire opposition, call for a pseudo-election, and then demand the respect of the international community,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).
The government said 506 candidates are running in the election, including the highest number of female candidates. It expects a higher voter turnout than in 2014, which it put at 53 percent, when opposition groups boycotted the elections.
Only 23 of 40 incumbents of the House of Representatives are seeking re-election this year to parliament, which has limited powers.
Many of Bahrain’s Shia say they are deprived of jobs and government services and treated as second-class citizens in the country of 1.5 million.
The authorities deny the allegations and accuse Iran of fostering unrest that has seen demonstrators clash with security forces, who have been targeted by several bomb attacks. Tehran denies the allegations.
Before Saturday’s vote, Bahrain’s interior ministry claimed Iran was trying to interfere in the elections, saying Tehran was behind around 40,000 texts sent to Bahraini citizens that “aimed to negatively affect” the elections.
Following that claim, the government told citizens to only trust “depend on “reliable sources”.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Manama is failing to create conditions necessary for a free election by “jailing or silencing people who challenge the ruling family” and banning all opposition parties.
A leader of dissolved opposition groups al-Wefaq said the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, has emboldened Bahrain’s authorities in their crackdown on dissent, which has included stripping scores of activists from their nationality.
“They couldn’t go ahead with all the crackdown without the strong backing of the Saudi government. Mohammed bin Salman listens only to hardliners in Bahrain’s ruling family,” Ali Alaswad, who lives in self-exile in London and has been sentenced in absentia to life in prison, told Reuters.
Government opponents say the space for political expression has been shrinking in the lead up to the election. Several activists, including a former legislator, were arrested last week for tweeting about boycotting elections, activists said.
“No one is barred from expressing their political views,” said a government spokesperson.
“Bahrain is home to 16 political societies, the majority of which have put forward candidates for the upcoming elections, and the government fully supports open and inclusive political dialogue.”
Some candidates have taken to social media to urge Bahrainis to vote as a patriotic duty.
“Those who don’t participate will not be part of the national consensus or equation in Bahrain,” said Ali Al Aradi, deputy president of Bahrain’s House of Representatives.
Some opposition figures hope the outcry over the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul last month could help strengthen more moderate voices in the region, including members of Bahrain’s royal family who are open to dialogue with the opposition.
The killing of Khashoggi, a critic of Prince Mohammed, has drawn global condemnation and exposed Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent and aggressive foreign policy.
“Now, if there’s a real accusation from the US against Mohammed bin Salman, radical wings in Bahrain which don’t want to work with the opposition will be weakened,” Alaswad said.
But some analysts are sceptical.
“The killing of Khashoggi will simply serve to highlight that those wishing to highlight abuses face a much riskier task,” said Marc Owen Jones of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter.
“If anything, it will have a chilling effect.”