Men in long white robes and women clad from head to toe in black swarmed to vote here Saturday, backing an electoral bid by long-oppressed Shiite Muslims to boost their political power.
The parliamentary vote in this tiny U.S. ally appeared set to deepen divisions between majority Shiites and Bahrain's privileged Sunni minority, a factor weighing heavily on neighboring Arab countries planning their own steps toward democracy.
Campaigning was marred by sectarian fear-mongering and a backlash against 18 women candidates, while voting bore signs of organized corruption.
Turnout was high but orderly, though officials said they did not know many of the Bahrain's 300,000 eligible voters took part. Results weren't expected before Sunday, but with more than 200 candidates vying for 40 National Assembly seats, many races appeared to be headed for a second-round runoff, scheduled for Dec. 2.
Many voters played down the significance of the historic vote. For decades, ordinary Bahrainis have had little say in a government controlled the family of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.
An election in 2002 — the first since parliament was dissolved in 1975 — was marred by boycott of opposition Shiites and liberals.
"For 30 years we had no say over what our government does," said opposition candidate Huda al-Mutawah, after she cast a ballot for herself. "This is the beginning. It's not complete democracy, but it's a start."
Limited power for elected officials
No matter what the results, the power of those elected remains limited. Their chamber is tempered by the 40 members of the upper chamber appointed by King Hamad, who must approve any legislation. Opposition members say that system preserves Sunni dominance.
Bahrain's vote has already been a landmark for women, who failed to win seats in 2002. This year they are guaranteed a seat, since pro-government candidate Latifa al-Gaoud is running uncontested. Al-Gaoud will be the first female legislator in the Gulf. Seventeen other women are vying for parliamentary posts.
Among Bahrain's Gulf neighbors, Kuwait allowed women to vote and run for office for the first time in elections held in June. No female candidates won, but a woman was handed a Cabinet post. Qatar and Oman have held low-level elections and the United Arab Emirates has announced similar plans. Saudi Arabia held municipal elections but, alone among Mideast nations, barred women's participation.
In Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, opposition backers worried that a sophisticated campaign of dirty tricks and corruption would skew the voting in the government's favor.
In September, leaked documents depicted an alleged government scheme to weaken the country's Shiites, who make up some two-thirds of the population. The plan called for bringing in Saudi voters from the pro-government al-Dosari clan to vote inside neighboring Bahrain, while handing Bahraini citizenship to foreign Sunnis from countries including Pakistan to tilt the country's demographic makeup.
Protesters demand leader resign
On Friday, some 1,500 opposition backers, mostly Shiites, marched in the capital demanding the resignation of the prime minister, who has been implicated in the alleged electoral scam.
Several irregularities Saturday also appeared to lend credence to the allegations, which the government has denied.
While international observers were blocked from monitoring the polls, dozens of Saudi nationals holding dual Bahraini citizenship appeared to be voting at a polling station on the causeway at the Saudi border.
One man, Rashid al-Dosari, 38, of Khobar in Saudi Arabia, climbed out of a Chevrolet with Saudi license plates, with a green Saudi and a red Bahraini passport in his hand. A companion told him to bring only the Bahraini passport to show election officials.
"I've had a Bahraini passport for eight years," al-Dosari explained, wearing a red-checked headscarf and a long white robe. "My wife is Bahraini."
Meanwhile, in the Shiite-dominated Karzakan district, a polling station was more than 2,500 ballots short of the 12,300 registered voters, monitoring judge Mubarak al-Haji said.
One angry man stormed out of the school gymnasium after being refused a chance to vote.
"We have no rights," shouted Fadhel Abdul Nabi.
Technical problems in capital
In the capital Manama, voters were turned away because of apparent computer glitches. In the Muharraq suburb, election monitor Mohammed Hussaini said some voters arrived clad in Pakistani national dress but displayed legitimate credentials.
"If they have Bahraini passports we have to let them vote," Hussaini said inside a school gym crammed with voters.
Information Minister Mohammed Abdel Ghaffar said small incidents were bound to happen, but he was unaware of any major voting violations.
Some Shiites at the Karzakan district described the voting as worthwhile in the long run, even though they expect few short-term improvements.
"These elections are meant for an international audience. We're still under control of the ruling family," said businessman Ali Saleh, 41. "But the election is better than nothing."
The voting also was marred by torrents of text messages that flooded mobile phones with divisive or misleading messages. On Saturday, a message being circulated falsely claimed that opposition candidate Sami Siyadi had pulled out of the race.
"This is the latest in a long string of rumors against us," Siyadi said.
Other anonymous leaflets warned that a Shiite victory would bring Iraq-style chaos, or that women candidates would spread immorality.