Manama (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Bahrainis went to the polls today for the first legislative and municipal elections since protests broke out in February 2011.
Some 350,000 voters are eligible to cast their ballot between 8 am and 8 pm. A second round of voting is set for next Saturday. A total of 419 candidates are running, 266 in parliamentary elections and 153 for municipal councils.
Groups representing the country's Shia majority announced they were boycotting the poll, dismissing the electoral process as a "farce" that would only benefit Sunni elites.
The main opposition party, Al Wefaq, and three other groups, which boycotted the elections, warned failure by the kingdom's rulers to loosen their grip on power could trigger a surge in violence.
Local sources reported that polling stations are busy in Sunni areas, but streets in Shia areas are blocked.
Bahrain, a US ally supported by Riyadh, has been torn by protests since early 2011, following the outbreak of the Arab Spring in many countries in North Africa and the Middle East.
The country's Shia majority is behind widespread dissent, demanding greater freedom and recognition from the Sunni-dominated authorities.
So fa however, the government has chosen to crack down violently, effectively nullifying attempts at a "national dialogue".
For analysts and local political experts, the turnout will be a key factor. For the opposition, a low turnout means a defeat for the country's rulers, making election results invalid.
Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman expects a maximum turnout of 30 per cent, saying the boycott stems from "the people's demand for democratic reforms".