Only a dozen people were present on Saturday morning when the polling station opened in the fifth northern district, near the Shiite village of Saar outside Manama, witnesses said. "I came because this is my country. I'm unemployed but it's not a reason not to vote," said Ali Ahmad al-Jamri, 34, a Shiite electrician who has been without work for three years.
In Manama's second constituency, ex-MP Matar Matar said that, "as expected, the turnout is poor ... I saw only some Bahrainis of Asian origins taking part in the polls."
The elections are being held to replace 18 MPs of the main Shiite opposition formation Al-Wefaq, who resigned in February shortly after protests triggered a deadly response from the authorities in the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom.
In total, 55 candidates are vying for 14 seats in the 40-member chamber after four won their seats for lack of candidates. The government had called on the 187,000 registered voters to turn out en masse.
Local daily Al-Ayyam claimed Wednesday that the government was considering penalising eligible voters who boycott the polls, including firing them from their jobs. But Minister of Justice Sheikh Khaled bin Ali Al-Khalifa said Saturday that there was a "misunderstanding" and that only those "hindering the voting" process will be penalised.
The government said it has established several voting centres outside the constituencies for voters "fearing intimidation in their village polling station." Matar dismissed the claim saying that those polling centres have always been a source of suspicion over the integrity of the polls.
"I went to a polling centre. The situation was calm and there were no demonstrations around ... There is no reason for those general centres," he told AFP. "There has always been a 'floating' section of voters who are dual citizens and not clear where they are registered," he said, referring to naturalised foreigners that the Shiite majority complain that are used to tip the demographic balance.
"Having those centres make it easy to doubt the integrity of the elections," he added.
Matar, who was released recently from detention pending trial, said taking part in the polls was not an option for Al-Wefaq because "people had already decided not to vote." "We do not have the right to promote elections when people do not want it," he said.
The election follows an incident on Friday in which hundreds of youths were dispersed by tear gas as they tried to reach a Manama junction that used to be Pearl Square, epicentre of the month-long protest quashed in mid-March.
The square, which became a symbol of the protest inspired by uprisings sweeping the Arab World, was razed shortly after the demonstrators were driven out. Youth groups have called for a new march Saturday towards the same site, to protest against the elections in Bahrain, as Al-Wefaq declared polling day a "day to mourn democracy."
Bahrain's authorities say 24 people were killed in the unrest earlier this year, including four policemen. The opposition puts the death toll at 30.