Bahraini citizens head to the polls on Saturday to elect members of the 40-seat lower house of parliament from a record field of 561 candidates.
The vote, which is being held alongside elections to the 30-member municipality council, could lead to run-offs in many districts as independents and past parliamentarians challenge incumbents for a seat in the chamber.
The 561 candidates — the largest number in the island kingdom’s history — include 107 women.
“We are witnessing the candidacy of more women and young people. It has been 20 years since the first elections in 2002, people tend to be more aware of their democratic rights and duties,” Mohammed Al Sayed, a founding member of the Citizens for Bahrain website, told The National.
Members of the country's 344,000-strong electorate who live overseas were able to cast their ballots at 37 diplomatic missions around the world on Tuesday.
“The number of Bahrainis who voted on Tuesday exceeded the figures of the last elections in 2018. The high turnout is a testament to the sense of responsibility and positive commitment of Bahrainis to exercise their constitutional rights and electing their representatives to the parliament,” said Nawaf Hamza, chairman of Bahrain’s high elections committee.
According to election rules, a candidate must obtain more than half of the votes in a constituency to be elected. If no candidate achieves more than half the votes, the two candidates with the highest number of votes will go head-to-head in a run-off election on November 19.
The next parliament will have at least eight new faces after seven current members chose not to seek re-election and one was disqualified from contesting.
“Social awareness will undoubtedly contribute to the delivery of qualified people to express the will of the people, and to carry out the constitutional responsibilities entrusted to the parliament,” said Fawzia Zainal, who was elected Bahrain’s first female parliament speaker in 2018.
Ms Zainal is among the seven current members who have chosen not to run in this election, and one of six women elected to parliament in 2018 — the most in Bahrain's history.
Unlike other countries in the region, Bahrain has no quota for representation of women or minority groups in parliament. Many Bahrainis view such a system to be in contravention of the country's constitution and the National Action Charter, a document passed in a 2001 referendum that set in motion a wide range of political, social and economic reforms.
Adel Al Asoumi, a long-time member of parliament, was disqualified from running after a candidate lodged a legal appeal against him after it was confirmed that he did not actually live in the district of Manama, the capital, that he has represented.
A notable change in this election has been a drop in the number of tents set up to serve as campaign headquarters, with many younger candidates choosing to connect with voters through social media.
A key issue in this election is Value Added Tax (VAT) after Bahraini legislators approved a bill last year to double the tax from 5 per cent to 10 per cent, with many of those who voted in favour facing a backlash from their constituents.
“Why should we re-elect the same people who vowed to protect our interests with empty promises and end up putting us in this economic situation?” said Ali Mohammed, who will be voting in the Southern 5th district.
“What we’re seeing is more and more of the younger generation now being conscious about who they’re voting for and it’s our turn now to elect representatives from our generation who know exactly what our key issues are,” he told The National.
“Economic challenges as a whole are the main issue for voters. Issues such as unemployment are widely discussed by candidates in their campaigns along with the possibility of increased taxes. The government of Bahrain recently launched its economic recovery plan, and many measures are being taken by the government to overcome the current challenges resulting from the pandemic,” Mr Al Sayed told The National.
Voter turn-out in 2018 was 67 per cent — the highest level since Bahrain became a constitutional monarchy in 2002.
According to a survey conducted by the Bahrain Centre for Strategic and International Studies, between 63 per cent and 69 per cent of voters are planning to cast a ballot on Saturday.