Great day for democracy in Bahrain 11/26/2006 7:18:00 PM GMT

The United States barks about democracy in the Middle East only when that serves its economic, military, or strategic interests.

But when free and fair elections take place in the Middle East, the U.S. either ignores or tries to block the recurrence of such events.

An example of that is what happened in the Palestinian territories. When fair and democratic elections produced undesirable results for the U.S., it attempted in every possible way to change the outcome of these elections, i.e. topple the Hamas-led government.

Amidst escalating tensions in the Middle East region, there are Arab countries that are planning their own steps toward democracy.

Again clean elections are taking place in Bahrain, but they don’t occupy main headlines in Western papers.

Thousands of men and women flocked polling stations set up across Bahrain on Saturday, casting votes in the Gulf state’s parliamentary elections.

Turnout in yesterday’s vote was 72 percent of the 300,000 eligible voters, 18pc up on the turnout for elections in 2002, according to High Elections Committee executive director Wael Buallay.

The final tally is expected later today.

The country’s 2002 elections, the first since parliament was dissolved in 1975, was marred by a boycott by opposition Shia and liberals.

Again this year allegation emerged about vote corruption, with no solid evidence supporting them.

True that Saudi nationals holding dual Bahraini citizenship voted at a polling station on the causeway at the Saudi border, and voters at Manama polling stations were turned away because of computer glitches, but Information Minister Mohammed Abdel Ghaffar dismissed allegations of fraud, saying that such incidents are expected in any voting process.

The parties competing include Jihadist, liberal groups who seek Western-style freedoms in a country that hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Regardless of the outcome of the vote, the power of those elected will remain limited. The National Assembly is tempered by the 40 members of the upper chamber appointed by King Hamad, who should first approve any legislation.

Information Minister Dr Mohammed Abdul Ghaffar described the country’s elections as a historic day for Bahrain.

"The turnout was high. The people of Bahrain visited the polling stations to exercise their democratic rights and vote for the candidates of their choice," he said.

Women in the Gulf are becoming increasingly visible in businesses, however their political rights are still restrained by a combination of tradition and law.

But this year’s elections in Bahrain have been a landmark for women, who failed to win seats in 2002. Lateefa Al Gaood was announced the winner of the sixth constituency of the Southern Governorate after running unopposed.

Seventeen more female candidates were in the parliamentary race yesterday and four were running for municipal council seats. But none scored a win in the preliminary results.

Bahrain's neighbors, such as Kuwait, allowed women to both vote and join election race for the first time last June, and a woman won a Cabinet post.

Also Qatar and Oman granted women the right to vote and hold public office. The United Arab Emirates announced similar plans.

And regarding the tensions between the country’s Shias and Sunnis, both parties did well in the preliminary results, but neither won a clear majority