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Bahrain today holds special parliamentary elections boycotted by the country’s largest Shiite Muslim bloc, a day after stepped-up protests in Shiite villages and riots in Manama’s biggest shopping mall.

The vote was called to fill 18 seats in the 40-member parliament vacated by the al-Wefaq group, the biggest Shiite party. Its lawmakers quit to object to a crackdown on mostly Shiite demonstrators who held rallies in February and March during which at least 35 people died.

“With the start of polls for the special elections, we offer our condolences to every person aspiring for freedom and justice on this day of mourning democracy,” al-Wefaq said on Twitter today.

The February-March demonstrations were held to demand full democratic representation and equal economic opportunities for the majority Shiite population. The country’s hereditary Sunni rulers invited troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies to help restore order, and accused Iran of fomenting the unrest.

Four candidates have already been declared winners after their competition withdrew, according to state-run Bahrain News Agency. It said today that 84 candidates had registered to compete for the 18 seats.

Essam Fakhro, chairman of Bahrain’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, “condemned chaotic acts, illegal and unlicensed demonstrations which target vital trading and economic locations and zones,” BNA reported yesterday.

“No economic prosperity can be achieved unless security and stability prevail,” Fakhro said, hours after riots at City Center and attempts by protesters to reach the Pearl Roundabout, the center of the protests. Dozens of armored vehicles were deployed in the past few days in the vicinity of the former roundabout, which the government has destroyed and replaced with an intersection.

Full-scale protests have stopped, though tensions persist, with almost daily, low-level rallies in Shiite villages to which government troops respond with tear gas and rubber bullets. Bloomberg

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