Bahrainis, including the Shiite-led opposition, started voting yesterday to elect their second post-reforms parliament, amid allegations of a plot to keep the majority Shiites under-represented.
Polls opened just after 8am, while hundreds of men and women had queued earlier waiting for the opening of ballot boxes.
Some 295,000 voters are entitled to elect 39 MPs in an equivalent number of constituencies. There are a total of 207 candidates, including 17 women.
One seat in the 40-strong chamber has already gone to Latifa al-Qouhoud -- a woman who stood unopposed in her constituency -- making her the first female MP in the kingdom's history.
The Shiite majority, which has faced discrimination in a country ruled by a Sunni dynasty, is out in force to achieve recognition.
But the main Shiite faction has had to ally itself with Sunni liberals and leftists. Like the Shiites, they boycotted the last legislative elections, in 2002, over discontent with reforms introduced by King Hamad.
The Islamic National Accord Association (INAA), which is the major Shiite formation in the kingdom, is fielding 17 candidates, while the leftist National Democratic Action Association has presented six candidates.
Both boycotted the 2002 polls protesting at the split of legislative powers between the parliament and an equally numbered upper chamber appointed by the monarch.
"Bahrain chooses its future today," read the front-page headline of Al-Watan.
But the daily warned that "Bahrain is at a historical junction, at which the country would go [either] to more of progress and reform, or God forbid ... to crises and destruction of social peace."
Bahrain's Shiites were behind anti-government protests which claimed at least 38 lives in the 1990s, as they pressed for the restoration of parliament which was scrapped in 1975.
The outgoing chamber came about following major reforms that included turning Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy.
Some among the opposition are boycotting these elections while those who are participating have cast doubt over the transparency of the ballot. They accuse the government of plotting to maintain a pro-government Sunni domination over the Gulf state.
The government "wants them to vote for the Islamist movement and independents who are counted as pro-government," leftist Sunni candidate Abdulrahman al-Nuaimi told reporters.
Some 2,000 demonstrators on Friday called for a probe into an alleged plot aimed at marginalizing the Shiite majority and demanded the resignation of the long-serving PM Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa.
In a controversial report, a former government consultant, Salah al-Bandar, claimed to have uncovered a secret organization operating within the government to "deprive an essential part of the population of this country of their rights" -- an allusion to Shiites.