MANAMA Bahrain's elections on Saturday are unlikely to bring change to an assembly with little clout, but the government is leaving nothing to chance as it tightens security and makes it tougher for majority Shi'ites to vote.
Critics say densely populated Shi'ite areas are not represented in parliament according to their share in Bahrain's 1.3 million population, and in some cases Shi'ite voters, of whom 300,000 are registered -- have been moved to Sunni areas where their votes have less impact.
"The types of rules and laws that are passed still favour the Sunni elites over the majority Shi'ite population," said Theodore Karasik of Dubai's Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
"The Shi'ites are angered because they want more inclusion in decision-making and they want more jobs in government ministries, but these kinds of legislations don't come up."
The Gulf Arab state's largest Shi'ite political group Wefaq, holding 17 out of 40 seats in the current assembly, is competing with Sunni Islamist groups and secular group Waad for parliament seats in a country whose stability is important for Washington.
The vote for the lower house will be the third in the Gulf Arab country since King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa launched reforms involving a new constitution and parliamentary elections a decade ago, but the Shi'ite opposition says it only served to co-opt them into the Sunni, royal-dominated system.
Shi'ites say they have witnessed discrimination in housing, healthcare and access to government jobs. They also say the government has settled foreign Sunnis to offset Shi'ite numbers.
The government of Bahrain, a regional banking hub that hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, denies all those claims. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia sees Bahrain's Sunni Arab dynasty as a bulwark against Iranian designs on the region, where rivalry between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam dates back to the period after the death of the Prophet Mohammad 13 centuries ago.
With Shi'ites coming to power in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, Gulf Arab Sunni rulers fear Bahrain could be another Achilles' heel in the regional order if Shi'ites ever managed to translate their numbers into real power through elections.
They also share Western fears that Iran -- a non-Arab Shi'ite state with considerable influence in the Arab world -- is seeking to become a nuclear weapons state with ambitions to dominate the region.
The vote come in the shadow of a security crackdown on Shi'ites in which 23 men, including some Shi'ite clerics, were arrested and accused of plotting to overturn the political system in a coup, partly through instigating street protests that have escalated in recent years with nightly tyre burnings.
Munira Fakhro, one of three Waad candidates, said she expected the government to tightly control the vote and its results. She said the crackdown appeared to extend to all forms of opposition to the authorities.
"We just want the government to be neutral and not to interfere on either side," said Fakhro, who complained her anti-corruption campaign posters had been pulled down. "We hope to win three seats but this is up to the government to decide."
Observers are mostly concerned that the authorities will use 10 polling stations where people can vote regardless of their place of residence to get more Sunnis to cast their votes and tip the balance.
PEACEFUL BUT GERRYMANDERED
Among Gulf states, only Kuwait enjoys a relatively vibrant electoral process that can compare to Bahrain. In both countries, however, the ruling families can intervene: in Bahrain through the 40-seat upper house which is directly appointed by the king and can easily block bills, and in Kuwait through the emir who is able to dissolve parliament at will.
Analysts and activists say that in Bahrain the authorities' concern is with the make-up of the constituencies themselves.
The main aim will be to stop Wefaq gaining a majority of the 40 seats up for grabs, after the 17 it won in 2006. Wefaq's main demand is for the lower house to enjoy greater powers than the upper house which has the main say over bills.
In Aly, a Shi'ite neighbourhood in the centre of Bahrain, the justice ministry has transferred the vote of 1,000 residents to Riffa district, which their street borders, and where Sunni candidate and former speaker of parliament Ahmed al-Dhahrani, who is close to the royal family, is set to win.
Residents think this is a ruse to weaken the chances of Wefaq's candidate in Aly, by removing 1,000 Shi'ite votes and wasting them in Riffa where no Shi'ite candidate is running.
"It's well known that Riffa is a loyal village," said Said Yousif, a human rights activist and resident of Aly. "I won't vote because they just want to marginalise the Shi'ite votes."
Election czar Sheikh Khaled bin Ali al-Khalifa, Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs, rejected claims that that it was a flawed democratic experiment.
"It's an inclusive system. It brings everyone in," the minister told Reuters, saying the aim was to raise political participation and bridge the sectarian divide. "It's not a matter of a security crackdown; there were crimes committed that coincided with the elections."
Polling day is usually peaceful, without the violence that mars voting in, say, Egypt, where supporters of opposition candidates are often denied access to polling stations.
But Karasik said the big question in this vote was whether it would worsen or calm civil unrest in light of the crackdown.
"The aftermath of the elections is going to be the most telling aspect," he said. "Will people return to the streets to throw molotov cocktails and destroy government property? What will the government's response be?"
(Reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by Andrew Hammond and Samia Nakhoul)