MANAMA, Nov 23, 2014 (AFP) - A war of words over Bahrain's legislative election heightened Sunday, with the Sunni leadership and the Shiite opposition, which boycotted the polls, at odds over the turnout rate and trading accusations of malpractice.
With the vote-counting still underway after Saturday's elections to the 40-member parliament, the focus was on voter turnout, which became a key marker of the poll's validity after the opposition boycott.
The official electoral commission put it at 51.5 percent, but the Shiite opposition, which has dismissed the elections as a "farce", said that only 30 percent of eligible voters had turned out.
Both sides also traded accusations of electoral malpractice, with the opposition saying tens of thousands of people were pressured to vote, while the Sunni authorities accused Shiite militants of preventing others from reaching ballot stations.
The legislative polls were the first since security forces in the Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdom crushed Arab Spring-inspired protests led by the majority Shiites in 2011.
The tiny Gulf state and key US ally remains divided nearly four years after the protests.
Al-Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group which withdrew its 17 lawmakers after the crackdown, warned on Saturday that failure by Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty to ease the Sunni "monopoly" on power could trigger a surge in violence.
'An end to confessionalism'
Voting closed at 1900 GMT Saturday after a two-hour extension decided by the electoral commission, in a likely bid to boost turnout amid reports that many Shiites had heeded the boycott call.
An hour later the head of the commission, Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa, who is also justice minister, said initial estimates showed 51.5 percent of registered voters turned out to vote.
"Turnout for the legislative elections was 51.5 percent... (and this result) puts an end to confessionalism in Bahrain," he said in reference to Shiite-led opposition's boycott call.
Almost 350,000 Bahrainis had been called to elect the 40-member parliament, with most of the 266 candidates Sunnis.
Al Wefaq called the official turnout rate "amusing, ridiculous, hardly credible".
Government officials were "trying to fool public opinion and ignore the large election boycott by announcing exaggerated figures," the opposition group said in a statement published early Sunday.
The Shiite opposition instead cited a turnout figure of "around 30 percent," allowing a possible five percent difference either way.
It also accused the authorities of making tens of thousands of state employees and others vote or face consequences.
Government officials, for their part, accused Shiite militants of provoking incidents which blocked roads in Shiite areas of the capital Manama in order to prevent people from voting.
In the Shiite village of Sanabes, west of Manama, clashes erupted between youths and security forces during voting.
Security forces fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, some of whom were masked and armed with petrol bombs.
There were also confrontations in other Shiite villages around Bahrain, witnesses said, and plumes of smoke were seen rising from at least three districts.
In some villages, AFP reporters saw downed trees, concrete blocks and burnt rubbish bins authorities said were aimed at preventing people from going to vote.
'National dialogue' fell apart
The political rivals have struggled to bury their differences through a so-called "national dialogue" that fell apart despite several rounds of negotiations.
Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman said the lack of accord could lead to an "explosion" of unrest in Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and a partner in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
The boycott stems from "the people's demand for democratic reforms," Salman told AFP.
The opposition wants a "real" constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister independent from the Al-Khalifa royal family -- a demand rejected by the Sunni dynasty in majority Shiite Bahrain.
In October, a court banned Al-Wefaq for three months for violating a law on associations.
The movement refused to resume talks with the authorities in September despite a new proposal announced by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.
Authorities ignored pleas by human rights groups last year to release political prisoners, instead increasing the punishment for violent crimes.
At least 89 people are estimated to have been killed and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the uprising began in February 2011.
Local municipal elections were also held Saturday.