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For First Time, Women Vote and Run for Office in Bahrain - 2002-10-24

For the first time in a Gulf state, women are voting in national elections in Bahrain and running for office. It is the first legislative election in the tiny Gulf kingdom in nearly 30 years.

In spite of a call for an election boycott, Bahraini voters turned out in large numbers Thursday to cast ballots in the Gulf kingdom's first legislative elections since 1973. In 1975, the former king dissolved the elected assembly.

One hundred seventy-seven candidates, including eight women, are competing for 40 seats in parliament.

While the parliament will have a total of 80 members, half of them will be appointed to a consultative council by the king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Some Shiite Muslim groups had called for a boycott of the election, in part, because they wanted Bahrain to return to its 1973 constitution that called for all members of parliament to be elected. Shiite Muslims are a slight majority in Bahrain, but the ruling family is Sunni Muslim.

Opposition groups were particularly angry that the chamber appointed by the king will have as much power as the elected assembly.

Last year, 98 percent of Bahranis voted in favor of a national charter that created the two-chamber system. And they appear to have gone out in large numbers to vote in this election, defying the calls for a boycott.

Jamal Fakhro is the former assistant to the president of the consultative council in Bahrain, and he says this election may see a record turnout.

"It was very strong. It has exceeded everybody's expectation, and, I think, it will exceed the number of those voters who have participated in the municipal election in May," he said. "Although in the municipal election, there was nobody boycotting the elections then. So, really, this will tell you that the impact of the boycott is very limited."

Bahrain went through a turbulent period in the 1990s, when Shiite groups pressed for political change. Since taking the throne in 1999, King Hamad has quieted much of the unrest by pardoning more than a thousand political prisoners, and introducing political reforms.

Bahrain, a tiny Gulf kingdom with a small population, is the Gulf region's financial hub. It is home to more than 100 banks and finance companies, with combined assets of more than $100 billion.