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Bahrain opposition activists set up alternative vote ahead of elections

Activists risk arrest by setting up polling booths across the island to challenge official election narrative
'Do you support writing your own destiny by choosing a new political regime in Bahrain under the supervision of the United Nations?' the alternative election asked on Friday (Twitter/@alaashehabi)

A day ahead of Bahrain's first general election since the 2011 uprising, opposition activists organised an alternative election on Friday, setting up polling booths across the country to ask citizens if they would like to vote on self-determination, under the supervision of the UN.

Images emerged on social media of women and men dressed in black with their faces covered for anonymity as they set up at least 29 booths with red-clothed tables and blue boxes to receive people’s “yes” or “no” votes.

Ala’a Shehabi, co-founder of Bahrain Watch, which seeks to promote transparent governance, tweeted: 

Bahrainis are expected to go to the polls on Saturday in the island state’s first election since a youth-led uprising led to widespread unrest in 2011.

The Shia-led opposition, however, claims that voting districts favour the Sunni minority that backs Bahrain’s monarchy, undermining any chance of meaningful change, and plan to boycott the elections.

Bahrain is struggling to rebuild a stable political foundation to reinvigorate its service-oriented economy as violent protests in Shia neighbourhoods have undermined stability.

For that reason the activists, many of whom are believed to be from the February youth coalition that led the uprising three and a half years ago, decided to create a referendum on self-determination.

In a televised press conference on 30 September, two women who had their faces covered, announced in Arabic and English the reasons for the referendum: “firstly, the existence of foreign occupation in the country; secondly, the lack of political, economic and security stability; thirdly, the occurrence of public and private damage as a result of the status quo.”

To quell unrest in Bahrain in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent their military forces known as the Peninsula Shield into the country, at the government’s request. They remain present in Bahrain stationed at the country’s borders and key strategic sites.

Bahrain hosts naval bases for the UK and the US, and is seen by the neighbouring Gulf regimes as a frontline in the region’s sectarian cold war as Sunni Gulf States line up against Shia Iran in proxy conflicts.

Those who rose up against the ruling monarchy in 2011 and continue to protest on a near nightly basis are frustrated by years of socio-economic corruption by the ruling family, as well as political promises for democratic reform that have not been fulfilled.

“Participating in this referendum … implants the authentic right of people to choose their political representative … Thus, the act of participation means the real desire of each one to choose freely,” the women said in the 30 September press conference.

Nabeel Rajab, founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told the Middle East Eye that he could hear helicopters over his house in Bahrain on Friday morning as the government monitors people as they gather signatures in support of Bahraini national self-determination.

“The idea is to send a letter to the United Nations calling for intervention in Bahrain allowing the people here to have control over their own affairs,” Rajab said by phone. “This initiative is the result of the existing regime failing to introduce any kind of meaningful democratic reforms.”

The letter will mirror petitions made by Bahrain in 1971 after being granted independence from Britain when Iran claimed sovereignty over the island. The UN responded by declaring Bahrain’s right to self-determination and separation from Iran to be an independent nation.

The ballot paper today read: “Do you support writing your own destiny by choosing a new political regime in Bahrain under the supervision of the United Nations?” 

The organisers of the letter are not part of the legalised opposition al-Wefaq society, who are understood to have been silent on the issue.

Reports emerged of a police crack down on the polling booths as people started showing up to vote.

Rajab said that even if most people would want to support the vote they might be intimidated by police crackdowns and arrests. On 12 November, security forces arrested and allegedly tortured at least 13 women in Bahrain who have reportedly been charged with “establishing and organizing a public referendum, inciting hatred against the regime and disrupting the elections”, according to a joint statement by human rights groups.

“If we were free to gather signatures, the majority of the population would likely sign it, but due to the fear of arrest many may not want to publicly state their support,” Rajab told MEE.

Shehabi told MEE: “I thought this vote would be impossible to do, given the government restrictions in Bahrain. Today, they have been out with their booths and they’re pretty organised. It’s a symbolic act of civil disobedience.”

“It’s not about who shows up, but about having a counter-alternative in a space that is really restricted and controlled,” she added.

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