Voters in the island kingdom of Bahrain picked their new parliament under tight security Saturday with a Shiite majority seeking a show of strength after a sweeping crackdown by Sunni rulers, but allegations about voting problems were raised before the ballots were even counted.
The claims — which include hundreds of Shiites reportedly blocked from voting — could complicate hopes of cooling tensions after waves of arrests and street clashes since summer in this key Western ally.
The outcome of the vote is likely to resonate well beyond the 40-seat chamber at stake, and could touch on the long-term stability of Bahrain, a strategic American partner. As home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the island nation is a centerpiece of Washington's efforts to confront Iran's military expansion in the Gulf.
The latest unrest is part of discord that has simmered for decades in tiny Bahrain: Shiites pushing for a greater political voice and the ruling Sunni dynasty trying to protect its control and place among the Sunni Arab clans that dominate the Gulf.
U.S. officials have toed a careful line. They count on Bahrain's leaders as reliable friends — particularly for their tough stance on Iran — but also worry that the heavy-handed tactics against perceived dissidents could leave the country sharply divided and difficult to govern.
The parliament has only limited powers and can be overruled by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his inner circle. For many Shiites, however, gaining more seats — and possibly even taking a majority — is seen as a message not to ignore their demands for a greater say in how the country is run.
"Bahrain has the potential to turn really nasty," said Christopher Davidson, a professor at the University of Durham in Britain, who has written extensively about the region. "There is a widening wealth gap between rich and poor and is just so happens that the rich are the Sunni leaders and the poor are the Shiites."
Less than an hour before voting closed, the head of the largest Shiite bloc lodged allegations of irregularities.
Sheik Ali Salman, head of the Al Wefaq party, claimed that at least 890 voters were turned away from polling stations in mostly Shiite areas because their names were not on electoral lists. Even small numbers of votes are crucial in a country with fewer than 319,000 eligible voters.
"This is not the full number," Salman told a news conference. "We expect it to be higher."
In an attempt to pre-empt vote rigging, Al Wefaq supporters also set up tables outside voting stations to tally up voters who said they backed the party's candidates. The lists will be used for any possible challenges to the official results, which are due Sunday.
In the last election in 2006, the vote also was marred by allegations of irregularities. Sunni authorities rejected those claims and pro-government candidates took control of parliament.
Bahraini officials did not immediately comment on the latest claims of voting troubles. But Bahrain's prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, described the voting as fair and an "utter democratic success."
Since August, Bahrain's rulers have waged a campaign of arrests and intimidation against suspected Shiite opponents, claiming they seek to undermine the ruling system and could open to the door for Shiite powerhouse Iran to exert influence in the heart of the Arab Gulf.
Shiites in Bahrain, meanwhile, say they only seek greater rights and opportunities after being shut out from key decision-making roles in the country.
More than 250 people have been detained, and Shiite protesters have fought back with sporadic street clashes and barricades of burning tires.
Election security was extensive, with police patrols and helicopter surveillance over some of the most violence-wracked districts. There were no reports of significant violence, but apparent Shiite protesters set several tires ablaze.
Some Shiite leaders called for an election boycott to protest the pressures. But turnout appeared strong in mainly Shiite areas, suggesting the boycott appeals failed to gain momentum.
"I believe all Shiites will want to make their voices heard after what has been happening," said a voter, Mohammed Mansour Ali, in the heavily Shiite Jidhaf district where men and women in all-encompassing black robes cast ballots in separate lines. "We cannot remain silent."
Bahrain authorities, however, have not allowed international election monitors, adding to worries among Shiites of possible vote rigging to undercut their candidates. Bahrain is one of the few Arab nations with a Shiite majority, though it is dominated by Sunnis.
The voting also comes before a highly sensitive trial next week for 23 Shiite activists accused of plotting a coup. Pro-government crews have canvassed Bahrain trying to paint over graffiti condemning the crackdown or showing stenciled images of leading opposition figures.
Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, promised that the trial would be open to the public.
More than 250 people have been detained since August, and lawyers and rights groups have raised alarms about reported torture and forced confessions.
Bahrain's officials insist the voting will be fair and open. Shiite leaders counter with a list of concerns, including claims that voting districts have been gerrymandered to undercut Shiite strength. They also worry about government policies that give citizenship to Sunnis from around the region to boost their ranks.
At a polling station near the causeway connecting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, many voters arrived driving cars with Saudi plates and headed back over the border after casting their ballots.