, MANAMA, Nov 22 – Bahrain went to the polls Saturday for its first legislative elections since a failed pro-democracy uprising in 2011, with the opposition boycotting the vote in the tiny Gulf monarchy.
The key US ally remains divided nearly four years after security forces in the Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdom crushed Arab Spring inspired protests led by majority Shiites.
Al-Wefaq, the main opposition group, warned on the eve of the vote that failure by the kingdom’s rulers to ease their “monopoly” on power could trigger a surge in violence.
Clashes between young demonstrators and security forces erupted in Shiite villages outside the capital Manama ahead of the polls, according to witnesses.
Plumes of smoke were seen rising from blazing tyres placed in the streets of several districts.
Bahrain’s electorate of almost 350,000 is being called to choose 40 deputies. Most of the 266 candidates are Sunnis in a vote denounced by critics as a “farce”.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) and are due to close at 8:00 pm. Municipal elections are being held at the same time.
In Rifaa, a Sunni dominated district south of Manama, dozens of people, mostly men dressed in traditional long white robes, lined up ahead of the start of voting.
“This election will help the development of the country under the leadership of the king,” said Naima El-Heddi, a civil servant in her 30s.
Voters were scarcer further north in the Shiite village of Jidhafs, where a witness reported seeing just 100 people casting ballots in the first two hours.
The boycott means turnout will be a key marker of the validity of the vote.
On the eve of elections, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the Shiite village of Diraz, with police firing tear gas to disperse them.
“Boycott! Boycott!” they chanted.
In other villages AFP reporters saw downed trees, concrete blocks and burnt rubbish bins authorities said were aimed at preventing people from going to vote.
“The elections have no meaning,” said Yassin, an unemployed 35-year-old.
Umm Hussein, a woman draped in black, said “it’s a farce,” describing the boycott as a “success”.
Shiite demonstrators frequently clash with security forces in villages outside the capital, and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the month-long uprising was crushed in early 2011.
Al-Wefaq withdraw its 18 lawmakers after the crackdown.
The country’s political rivals have struggled to bury their differences through a so-called “national dialogue” that fell apart despite several rounds of negotiations.
Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman said the lack of accord could lead to an “explosion” of unrest in Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and a partner in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
The boycott stems from “the people’s demand for democratic reforms,” Salman told AFP, predicting a maximum 30 percent turnout.
The opposition wants a “real” constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister independent from the Al-Khalifa royal family.
But the Saudi backed Sunni dynasty that rules over the majority Shiite kingdom has rejected the demand.
In October, a court banned Al-Wefaq for three months for violating a law on associations.
The movement refused to resume talks with the authorities in September despite a new proposal announced by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.
Salman said he did not expect the opposition to reach an agreement with the government, following Shiite led protests he said had cost “at least 100 lives” over the past three years.
Information Minister Samira Rajab stressed ahead of the polls that the government would not tolerate “chaos, unrest and foreign meddling” a reference to Shiite Iran.
Authorities ignored pleas by human rights groups last year to release political prisoners, instead increasing the punishment for violent crimes.
Attacks that cause death or injuries can now be met with capital punishment or life imprisonment.