MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahraini police set up checkpoints and patrolled key roads Saturday in a massive show of force during highly charged parliamentary elections that Shiite-led opposition groups have vowed to boycott.
The heaviest security was around Pearl Square in the capital Manama, which was once the hub for Shiite protesters demanding greater rights from the ruling Sunny monarchy. The area was ringed by barb wire and lines of armored police vehicles amid calls by anti-government factions to try to reclaim control of the site.
The special elections were called to fill 18 parliament seats abandoned by Shiite lawmakers to protest the harsh crackdowns since February in the strategic nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
More than 30 people have died in the unrest and hundreds have been arrested, including activists sentenced to life in prison after being charged with plotting to overthrow the ruling system.
Main Shiite factions have vowed to snub the voting in a message of defiance. On Friday, scattered clashes broke out in mainly Shiite areas and Bahrain's most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, denounced the government as leading a "fake democracy."
The voting in predominantly Shiite areas of the tiny Gulf island appeared light Saturday. At one polling station in the Manama neighborhood of Sanabis that was the scene of a wave of clashes Friday, only 30 ballots have been cast in the first four hours of voting.
A polling station in Hamid Town, a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood of the capital, was noticeably busier with a steady stream of people heading to vote. By noon Saturday, hundreds had cast their ballots, election officials at the polling station said. Voting started at 8:00 a.m. local time.
"It was my duty to vote and show I have solidarity with the leaders of Bahrain," said Samira, a 32-year-old Sunni, who only gave her first for fear of being harassed after she voted in Sanabis.
A few blocks away, a group of young Shiite men were sitting in front of closed store front, streets littered with trash, rocks and tear gas canisters, fired by police the night before to disperse groups of anti-government protesters. They said they were boycotting the balloting.
"This is a fake election. It's useless," said one man among the group, who only gave his first name, Ali, fearing retaliation by the authorities. "We don't have any stake in the political system any more after these killings in the past months."
Shiites are the majority in Bahrain, but claim they face widespread discrimination and are blocked from high-level military or political posts. Among the demands is a European-style system for an elected government, including the prime minister.
More than 30 people have been killed since Shiite-led protests, inspired by Arab uprisings, started in February.
Bahrain's parliament has little direct powers, but it carries important symbolism as part of limited political reforms started about a decade ago. The expected boycott is almost certain to leave the parliament totally in pro-government hands and deepen the country's rifts. Four of the candidates have already been declared winners by running unopposed or after rivals dropped out.
Bahrain's leaders, meanwhile, have backing from powerful Gulf neighbors that fear any cracks among the region's ruling kings and sheiks. A Gulf force, led by Saudi Arabia, was dispatched to Bahrain in March to help prop up the 200-year-old Sunni dynasty.
But the protests across the region have stirred some small steps toward more political openness.
The United Arab Emirates also holds elections Saturday for seats on a national advisory council, which has no legislative powers but is promoted by Emirati officials as part of a widening "experiment" in allowing a greater public voice in affairs. The UAE's elections will be decided by about 129,000 hand-picked voters.
Later this month, Saudi Arabia plans to hold municipal elections after a nearly two-year delay. Woman, however, will be still barred from participating or voting.