SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. It's election day in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. Voters there will fill seats left vacant when the leading Shi'ite opposition party walked out of parliament to protest the crushing of unrest back in March. The opposition is calling for a boycott; street protests have continued, but the government, with the encouragement of the U.S. government, insists it will maintain order and usher in genuine reforms. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Bahrain and has this report.
PETER KENYON: Less than a year ago, Bahrain's polling stations were packed. The largest Shi'ite opposition party, al-Wefaq, was participating, and took 18 of the 40 seats in parliament. But after a dramatic, short-lived popular uprising this spring was crushed by the Sunni-led government forces backed by troops from Saudi Arabia, Wefaq walked out of parliament in protest. As the government moves to fill those seats, there's a distinct lack of voter enthusiasm. I'm standing in a school gym, which is serving as a polling station in the Sinabis neighborhood. This neighborhood was the scene of billowing tear gas and chants against the king yesterday, as young protesters faced off against a large security deployment. By late morning today, however, the polling station remains almost empty of voters. The poll workers are ready, the ballot boxes stand waiting, but so far at least the only things missing are the voters.
SAUSAN TAKAWI: (foreign language spoken)
KENYON: Four candidates are running unopposed, and three of them met reporters Thursday. Sausan Takawi is a 39-year-old head of a youth and sports organization, who voiced a common theme when she said protecting the rule of law and Bahrain's economy are top priorities.
TAKAWI: See, Bahrainis who loves his country will not let the economic of Bahrain to go down. If someone is one of the people who made that, then he's not Bahraini.
KENYON: Takawi, who is Shi'ite, also spoke of the need for reform, and of standing up for anyone abused in the crackdown by the government in March. She was unusually blunt in rejecting opposition criticism that she can't speak for the people.
TAKAWI: So, that's bull - sorry to say in this language, that's bull (beep). It's not true. I'm representing people. I'm not representing the government. When I decided to enter the election, no one told me to go. Yeah, I have kids. I want better for my family, my kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHANTING)
KENYON: In another corner of this tiny kingdom, thousands gathered to hear Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of Wefaq. Salman called the government's reforms cosmetic and said elections alone don't make democracies. He noted that elections were routine occurrences in some of the authoritarian regimes that are now history.
ALI SALMAN: (Through Translator) We're talking about the democracy of Britain, of the U.S., of France; not the democracy of Egypt, of Bin Ali in Tunisia, of Saddam Hussein, or of Gadhafi.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
KENYON: This rally was licensed and peaceful, but young Shi'ites are still taking to the streets. They did so again yesterday in a shopping mall and a number of Shi'ite villages, defying a huge security deployment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOTS FIRED)
KENYON: As tear gas canisters spewed their fumes through the alleys, the reply was a four-beat rhythm, over and over. It stands for down, down Hamad, a reference to Bahrain's monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. While the government is willing to discuss reform, regime change is a red line for the ruling family, and for neighboring Saudi Arabia, which sees Bahrain as a bulwark against Iran's regional ambitions. Washington is also solidly behind the government, a strategic ally that has long hosted the Fifth Fleet here. One Bahraini official said he's hoping for a 50 percent turnout today and then quick action on reforms. Whether that will be enough to recapture Bahrain's image as a safe and moderate banking haven is the huge question that remains unanswered. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Bahrain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.