Bahrain politics: Adversarial

November 23rd 2006



Opposition parties are expected to make significant gains in Bahrain's parliamentary elections on November 25th, after four opposition groups decided to end an election boycott. This could potentially work to the advantage of the government, which has sought for some time to regulate opposition movements and bring them into the parliamentary fold. Yet persistent sectarian tensions in the Shia-majority but Sunni-ruled state, coupled with a recent uproar over a report alleging systematic vote-rigging, suggest the new parliament will be combative.

Most of the newly elected opposition MPs are likely to emerge from the popular Islamist-leaning group, al-Wefaq, whose support base is concentrated among the country's Shia majority. Al-Wefaq favours a return to the sort of parliament established by the former emir in 1973, where elected MPs had, in theory, more power--that is until the emir closed it down in 1975, and arrested a number of MPs. Since his successor, King Hamad al-Khalifa, introduced a new parliament in 2002, al-Wefaq and three other opposition parties have boycotted it in protest at the limits on elected MPs' powers. These four parties have now decided to end their boycott, although a new party, al-Haq, a breakaway faction of al-Wefaq, will continue it.

However, the entry of more opposition MPs into parliament will do little to alter the Sunni ruling family's dominance of policymaking. The powers of the 40-seat elected chamber of parliament are heavily circumscribed, and largely offset by a royally appointed upper house. Real power remains in the hands of the executive, dominated by the ruling al-Khalifa family, whose members hold most of the key cabinet posts.

Royal endorsement?

The government would like to portray this election as an implicit endorsement of the limited political reforms carried out by King Hamad. Previously, the legitimacy of the parliament has suffered from the absence of the main Shia-based political groups, but the opposition parties appear to have given up their boycott without securing any clear concessions from the government in return, which could be seen as a tacit admission that the boycott has failed.

However, the government's composure in the run-up to the vote has been affected by allegations of gerrymandering and vote-rigging, which have provoked a severe response from the authorities. An unnamed election official told Reuters that "those who spread rumours about the integrity of the election or candidates without proof will face prosecution and imprisonment of up to six months or a fine of up to BD500 [US$1320]".


Potentially the most embarrassing allegations have come in what has been dubbed the "Bandargate" affair. Shia activists have long claimed that the government is trying to meddle with the sectarian balance by naturalising new Sunni citizens in disproportionate numbers--a claim that the government has dismissed. They also argue that the division of constituencies disfavours Shia voters. Such issues leapt up the political agenda in September, when, Dr Salah al-Bandar, a British citizen working as a consultant to the government's Council of Ministers' Affairs compiled and circulated a 240-page report that claims to document efforts by hardline Sunnis within the government to manipulate the vote and to undermine Shia opposition activities.

The report alleged that a covert anti-Shia organisation set up within the government was attempting to stir up anti-Shia sentiment through internet campaigns, and was offering bribes to Shias willing to convert to Sunnism. It also said officials had made secret payments to pro-government candidates, NGOs and journalists in an effort to influence the vote; and it purported to document these claims with a paper trail of payment receipts. Dr al-Bandar has since been deported from Bahrain and faces trial in absentia. The government has accused him infiltrating classified databases.

Initially, the government responded to the concerns raised by the report by saying it would postpone plans to increase the use of electronic voting, a policy that had been encouraged by the authorities but which opposition groups feared would facilitate fraud. It also suggested it would improve the independence of the election committee before the next elections (which are four years away). But, unsurprisingly, these gestures failed to dispel voters' worries.

Gagging order

Faced with a flurry of media interest and intensifying calls from political activists and NGOs for a full investigation into the report's allegations, the government has resorted to a clampdown on public discussion of Bandargate. The High Criminal Court has banned any reporting related to the report while Dr al-Bandar awaits trial, and the information ministry subsequently blocked some 20 websites (including personal blogs) that had discussed the case. In addition, two Haq activists were arrested in early November for allegedly possessing and planning to distribute leaflets encouraging Bahrainis to boycott the vote.

These efforts seem likely to backfire in internet-savvy Bahrain. Locals can access reporting on the case from international press agencies, and the normally docile local press has protested against the gagging order. Bahrain's most popular websites, such as the occasionally banned forum Bahrain Online, have a larger readership than any of the country's newspapers, and the young population is adept at using proxy sites to bypass official blocks. Officials from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, an NGO loosely aligned with the Shia-based opposition, have claimed that since their website was banned in October, their readership has increased threefold.

Electoral reform

Despite all this, voter turnout is expected to be high, especially since a leading group of Shia clerics, the Islamic Scholars Council, has called for voters to participate in the election, following a meeting with the king in October. It is possible that leading Shia clerics are willing to accommodate some of the government's requests in return for its delaying controversial plans to codify the family law, a move that would reduce the discretion of clerics to apply their own understanding of Islamic jurisprudence in the family courts. (Plans for a new law have been on hold since thousands of mostly Shia Bahrainis demonstrated against it in November 2005.)

The concerns of prospective opposition MPs also include economic issues--especially access to jobs, housing and infrastructure, where many Shia believe they are disadvantaged relative to their Sunni counterparts-- as well as political reform. For its part, the government will continue to seek to prioritise economic reforms, with a focus on attracting more foreign private investment, over political liberalisation that might challenge the ruling family's position. However, the pre-election tensions make it more likely that the issues of electoral reform and perceived sectarian discrimination will top the agenda of the newly elected opposition MPs.

While the policymaking powers of the elected chamber are very limited--it cannot draft legislation and requires the approval of the upper house to amend it--MPs are able to give a voice to controversial issues and, importantly, to question ministers. It will be more difficult for the government to clamp down on criticism expressed within parliament than that conveyed by street protests, opposition publications, or newspapers. Moreover, gaining the status of an official parliamentary opposition will give opposition activists added clout with Bahrain's international allies, notably the US and UK. This will make it easier for opposition activists to access foreign officials and the international media, and less likely that they will then face adverse consequences at home. The government may therefore find that its critics are strengthened by the coming election, despite its best efforts to control the pace of political change.