Polls opened for parliamentary elections in the Kingdom of Bahrain Saturday amid rising tensions between the country's dominant Sunni community and the majority Shiite population.
REUTERS - Bahrainis began to cast their votes for a new parliament on Saturday against a backdrop of rising sectarian tensions in the Gulf Arab country where decision making is tightly controlled by its rulers.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has a Shi'ite majority population but is governed by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty, which allies Saudi Arabia and the United States see as a bulwark against the regional influence of Shi'ite power Iran.
The island kingdom is the smallest Gulf Arab nation but a reform process launched by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa a decade ago has been closely watched in the region, especially after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq which brought Shi'ites to power there.
Saturday's elections are the third since the establishment of Bahrain's current parliament -- which has limited powers because bills need to pass an upper house whose members are appointed by the king.
The run-up to the polls was overshadowed by a broad security crackdown against some Shi'ite opposition groups in August. The government has also clamped down on bloggers and human rights activists.
Observers say the level of participation and any increase in street protests after the elections will be more telling than the actual results, where few changes are expected.
Polls opened at 0500 GMT and will close at 1700 GMT. Results are expected to be announced on Sunday morning.
"People in Bahrain were not expecting this crackdown, it came as a surprise and has imposed itself on the campaigns," said Jassim Hussain, an outgoing member of parliament for the main Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq.
Bahrain, with 1.3 million inhabitants and -- unlike its neighbours -- no oil and gas reserves, relies on foreign investment and tries to present itself as having a business-friendly environment.
Next week, 23 men charged with plotting to overthrow the political system will appear in court for the first hearing in their trial.
Wefaq has fielded only 18 candidates for the 40-seat assembly. Critics accuse Bahrain of delineating its voting districts in such a way as to ensure the Shi'ite opposition will not have a majority in parliament.
Some densely populated Shi'ite districts have up to 15,000 registered voters, while areas where only Sunni candidates are running have a much smaller number on the electoral roll.