Bahrain elections: More questions than answers
The government of Bahrain is stepping up the pressure to get voters to the polls in today’s parliamentary and municipal elections. With 40 parliamentary seats and 30 municipal posts up for grabs and more than 400 candidates standing, the kingdom should be fizzing with electoral excitement. It isn't, despite direct appeals by the justice minister and the threat of sanctions against those who do not vote.
Earlier this week Bahrainis were surprised to receive personal letters from justice minister Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa urging them to “vote for Bahrain”. None was more surprised than the former MP Jaiwad Farouz, stripped of his citizenship and now living in exile in London.
|What is the point? A parliament without an opposition? What sort of parliament is that?
– Bahraini businessman
He relished the irony. The letter had, he said, urged him to “vote at the polling centre located in my area.”
Even more bizarrely, a letter was sent to the home of the leader of the secular Waad society, Ibrahim Sharif, now serving the fourth of a five-year jail sentence, after being convicted on evidence many consider to have been extracted under torture.
Meanwhile, pro-government newspapers published articles ahead of the election raising the possibility of “punishments” against those who choose not to vote, including the threat to deny public sector jobs to boycotters. Given that the pubic sector is Bahrain’s biggest employer that would be a serious consequence.
"The government is studying procedures and administrative measures against those who miss out intentionally on the elections," was how cabinet minister and chief electoral overseer Abdulla al-Buainain put it.
It all suggests that the government is only belatedly realising that opposition parties’ boycott is now extending to voters. Most Shia Muslims will simply not show up to vote, heeding a call by al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party. As senior party leader Khalil al-Marzook put it: “if you vote, you are voting to accept a system that is unfair, that is excluding you and repressing you.”
Years of unrest
Shia are the majority indigenous population in a country that has been ruled by the Sunni Khalifa family for more than 200 years. They have long complained of discrimination, high unemployment and poor housing.
The Gulf island kingdom has been wracked by nearly four years of unrest that kicked off in February 2011. Peaceful pro-democracy activists, mainly, but not only, Shia, occupied a landmark roundabout in the capital Manama.
The government used force to remove the protesters and in the ensuing months dozens died, hundreds were arrested and convicted before military courts and more than 4,000 were sacked from their jobs in the private and public sectors. Among the dead were three who were murdered while in detention. Nearly all the victims have been Shia.
After a damning report by a panel of independent human rights experts, the government promised sweeping reforms and a national dialogue began.
But the opposition says the proposed reforms do not go nearly far enough, that human rights abuses continue and that the dialogue was neither meaningful nor ever intended to move the country forward toward reform.
Their decision to boycott the election left the field open to a bewildering number of independent candidates, most with little experience.
Mansoor al-Jamri is the editor in chief of al-Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper. He says that many of the candidates are what he calls “random unknowns”.
And that in turn, he said, has meant that this is not an election about issues. Instead it has become little more than a popularity campaign with the winners securing a job with handsome benefits: “There are only a handful of experienced people, the others are running for a good package.”
Jamri has a point – being a member of parliament in Bahrain is well rewarded, with a salary of $150,000 a year, a generous pension plan, a diplomatic passport and a car, typically a Mercedes or a BMW.
The slim likelihood of a parliament dominated by neophyte independents having any impact whatsoever has no doubt contributed to the wave of apathy. That is particularly the case when you consider that the 40-member Shura Council, or upper house, is appointed by the king and wields ultimate decision-making power.
The government and its supporters had hoped the election would reinforce their narrative that Bahrain is moving forward. But the vote is only likely to reinforce a political stalemate that has damaged the country’s economy, exacerbated sectarian strife and tarnished its international image.
As one businessman, who asked not to be named, put it: “what is the point? A parliament without an opposition? What sort of parliament is that?