|A total of 127 candidates, including eight women, are in the race for parliamentary seats [AFP]
Voters in Bahrain have cast their ballots in elections that give the Gulf nation's Shia majority an opportunity to air their differences with the Sunni dynasty that maintains a centuries-old grip on power.
Official figures were not yet available on voter turnout. But first results were expected during Saturday night.
Some 292 observers from Bahraini non-governmental organisations are monitoring the elections, which foreign observers were not allowed to oversee.
More thant 318,000 Bahrainis were eligible to vote in the elections, the third since a parliamentary system was reinstated in the Gulf kingdom in 2002.
A total of 127 candidates, including eight women, were in the electoral race. One of the female candidates, outgoing MP Latifa al-Qouhoud, has already secured an uncontested seat.
Voters also cast their ballots for their respective municipal councils.
Parliament has the authority to examine and pass legislation proposed by the king or cabinet and also has monitoring powers.
But the consultative council, or the upper chamber, for which the king appoints 40 members, has the power to block legislation coming out of the lower house.
Speaking of his expectations from the new parliament in Muharraq, Bahrain's second-largest island after Manama, the capital, voter Ali Qassab told the AFP news agency: "They should increase salaries and reduce unemployment."
Sheikh Ali Salman, a senior Shia leader and member of parliament, said ahead of the elections that authority should be shared with people in what analysts say is an open challenge to the pro-Western Al-Khalifa family, in power since 1783.
Despite the restoration of the parliament that was dissolved in 1975, King Hamad's uncle, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, has served as prime minister ever since independence from Britain in 1971.
"It is unacceptable that power be monopolised by a single family, even one to which we owe respect and consideration," Salman, who also heads the Shia mainstream Islamic National Accord Association (INAA), told a mass rally on Wednesday in a Manama suburb.
"We look forward to the day when any child of the people, be they Sunni or Shia, can become prime minister."
The archipelago state was plagued in the 1990s by a wave of Shia-led unrest which has abated since the steps launched to convert the emirate into a constitutional monarchy.
In the run-up to the legislative and municipal polls, a wave of arrests of Shia political activists has drawn warnings from international human rights watchdogs of a drift back to full-blown authoritarianism.
Amnesty International, a London-based rights watchdog, said earlier this month Bahraini authorities had detained 250 Shia opposition activists.