- Note: The following article by Qasim Abdul-Aziz has been supplemented with additional comment from the NCF Secretary General, William Morris:
Bahrain voted last month in the kingdom’s parliamentary election. Bahrain’s justice minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa, has since announced the first set of results for the country’s elections, with a 67 percent voter turnout in the parliamentary elections and 70 percent in the municipals.
Figures are putting this year’s elections at a higher voter turnout than the previous election in 2014 where voter participation reached only 53 percent. Bahrain also saw a record number of female candidates, with 39 standing election to the House of Representatives and 8 for municipal councils.
Despite this, the election has proven to be controversial. Many, both inside and outside of the country, have decried the election as a ‘sham’ and a ‘farce’ due to the lack of opposition groups. Bahrain’s two main opposition groups – the Shi’ite Al-Wefaq party and the secular Wa’ad party – were both prohibited from submitting their respective parliamentary candidates.
Contrast this with the position at the national elections four years back when, in discussions with the predominantly Sh’ite opposition associated with the “national dialogue” led by the Crown Prince, the opposition was offered a guarantee that it would garner at least 50% of the parliamentary seats. The opposition wanted 50% of the key ministries as well and, when this was denied them, refused to stand. They wanted to bank their gains and stand but the Sh’ite religious leadership of the nation refused to allow them to do so and the leadership of Al-Wefaq was brownbeaten into agreement and withdrew all their candidates.
This of course set the reformists amongst the Sunni leadership on the back foot. Now the neoconservatives had their moment and they took it and political intolerance became the order of the day.
Bahrain is a Shi’ite majority country with a Sunni ruling minority. There are no accurate figures as to the split but it is possibly of the order of 60/40 Shi’ite/Sunni. However, the ruling Al-Khalifa family has overseen a system that favours the Sunni minority in almost all areas of society. Bahrain’s political, social and economic system affords privilege to Sunni citizens – and Sunnis are inevitably prioritised for positions in the police force, the military, and the security service and in general, have higher prospects of employment and wealth.
Bahrain’s Shi’ites have long called for reform, citing grievances disenfranchisement and claiming systemic oppression.
There have none the less been some reforms, particularly of the criminal justice system. And problems such as torture, once sadly commonplace, are now far rarer following the appointment of an effective ombudsman. There is also less imprisonment of young offenders, following the introduction of a groundbreaking restorative justice system similar to that in the Netherlands and way in advance of anything in the UK or USA.
The decision to exclude opposition groups from these elections was however a sad error by the ruling Al-Khalifa family, thereby ostensibly limiting the political sphere and removing any threat to the monarchy. But the reality is that this decision helps reinforce the fractured state of Bahrain and lessens the stability of the nation. Whether the opposition would have stood if they could have stood is another entirely different question and one which we shall now never know the answer to. The leadership of the nation should have challenged the opposition rather than repressed it.
On the plus side, Bahrain should be commended for their relative inclusivity in regard to female participation in these elections, yet strides need to be made for the total inclusivity of all Bahrain’s citizens. In recent years, Bahrain’s government has largely contained dissent from the Shi’ite opposition who had previously staged an uprising and organised mass protests in 2011. The anti-government protests saw scores of people killed, with thousands tortured and arrested. The failure to offer the opposition the chance to stand at these latest elections will have fostered further discontent. Though the people are less likely to engage in violent mass protest given the failure of that tactic before, low grade terrorism will no doubt continue. The killing of policemen is not a infrequent feature of life in Bahrain. Other actions such as the blocking of roads in the rush hour with burning tires are also commonplace.
The government of Bahrain desperately needs to constructively engage and rebuild their relationship with the Shi’ite populace. Whilst it is true that the country is divided along sectarian lines, it could be argued that this is not to a great extent due to theological differences. Instead the sectarian divide in Bahrain is displayed more through the political, social and economic disparity between Sunni and Shi’ites. Excluding large segments of Bahrain’s population from having a say in their own government is counterproductive and not in the best interests of Bahrain. Perhaps it is time for the old ones to step aside. Bahrain has both the longest serving prime minister and the longest serving opposition leader in the entire world. They are both charming and effective men. Too effective perhaps. They go head to head rather than cooperate for the good of the nation. If Bahrain is indeed concerned about Iranian influence in the region, and in particular amongst its own citizens, enacting social change and addressing the concerns of the people could go a long away to fostering stability.
A start could be made by encouraging an opposition newspaper. Bahrain once arguably had the freest press in the Gulf in so much as it had a respected opposition newspaper – which NOT ONE other Arab monarchy had. It was forced to close last year, an action that marked the low point in Bahrain’s recent history.