Democratic rule is goal of national charter vote

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The Independent Online

Bahrainis lined up from early today outside polling stations to vote on a national charter that may put their tiny Gulf nation on the long road to democratic rule.

Bahrainis lined up from early today outside polling stations to vote on a national charter that may put their tiny Gulf nation on the long road to democratic rule.

The "yes" or "no" vote is being held over two days starting today and the changes envisioned in the charter, which was expected to win wide approval, are not expected to take full effect until 2004.

"I voted 'yes' and, God willing, things will change," said Hassan Rashed, 60, as he was leaving a polling station at Manama's Seef shopping mall. "We hope for real change. We hope that this vote and the support we are giving are significant, that they mean something."

"I voted 'yes' and we are all optimistic about this positive step," said housewife Rabab Al-Askari, 43, after casting her ballot in a polling station set up at the capital's Salmaniya Medical Center.

Voters standing in line outside polling stations appeared buzzing with excitement as they waited for their turn to vote, conversing cheerfully and exchanging morning greetings. Many cars in the capital were draped in the white-and-red flags of Bahrain and festooned with pictures of the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and his heir apparent, sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

The lines began to form outside some polling stations even before they were open at 8am (0500 GMT). The stations close at 7pm (1600 GMT) but re-open tomorrow for the same length of time.

A Muslim nation of just under 500,000 people, Bahrain is a close US ally and home to the American 5th Fleet. Its current plans to introduce wide-reaching democratic reform will, if followed through, set it apart from the rest of the oil-rich region.

Most Bahrainis are optimistic about what they have read in the charter. As in most Gulf Arab states, power in Bahrain is wielded by a royal family. Political and media freedoms are limited. The charter promises equality and freedom and to delegate more power to the people.

The so-called national action charter provides for an elected parliament to govern the Gulf island; the last national assembly was dissolved in 1975.

It also says that all citizens are equal regardless of religion, sect or class. It allows men and women to vote and run for office, make the judiciary independent and establish a body to investigate the public's complaints.

"We want to ensure that people are proud of their country and of where they live," Sheik Salman, the crown prince, told a recent press conference.

Since coming to power in 1999 after his father's death, the emir has shown willingness to reform, releasing more than 1,000 political prisoners and detainees.

During the mid-1990s, a violent Shiite Muslim campaign for political reform gripped the country. Bahrain's former ruler, Sheik Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, dealt sternly with the rebellion.

A crackdown in Shiite areas resulted in the prosecution of hundreds. More than 40 people were killed in the unrest. The ruling family is from Islam's mainstream Sunni sect; Shiites are a slight majority on the island but wield little political power.

Human rights groups, previously critical of Bahrain's track record, have welcomed the latest developments.

Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, has welcomed the pardon of the prisoners. The New York-based Human Rights Watch also has commended the Bahraini government for encouraging public debate on the proposed reforms, but warned that more has yet to be done.

"Many aspects of these political reforms still have to be clarified. It seems that Bahrain is still a long way from democracy," Hanny Megally, HRW's executive director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.

The minimum age for voters is 21. Bahrainis with outstanding sentences for criminal convictions will not be allowed to vote, but those who have served their sentences or have been pardoned will be able to. In all, 217,000 Bahrainis are eligible to vote. The first day of voting is mainly reserved for civil servants.

Ballot counting begins today. Final official results are expected to be announced on Friday, preliminary results may be available earlier.