What lies beneath Bahrain’s parliamentary elections

It has been almost four years since Bahrainis took to the streets, calling for democracy and political reforms. However, with only three days left before the parliamentary elections take place in Bahrain, the country still shows no signs of change or improvement.

Bahrain’s constitution, introduced by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in 2002, created a bicameral legislative body consisting of an elected chamber, the Nuwab Council, and an appointed consultative chamber, the Shura Council. The last parliamentary and municipal elections held in 2010, which reached a 67 per cent voter turnout rate, granted Al Wefaq National Islamic Society (the largest political party in the country) 18 out of a total of 40 seats. This year, four main opposition groups including Al Wefaq have already announced they will be boycotting the elections set for 22 November 2014 in protest.

On 28 October, the Supreme Court decided to suspend the activities of Al Wefaq for a period of three months. The Ministry of Justice filed the lawsuit early this year in an attempt to “correct” the group’s legal status, claiming they have failed to comply with rules about holding their general meetings. Al Wefaq called the court’s decision an “uncalculated crazy adventure.” Hours later, Justice Minister and member of the ruling family Khaled Bin Ali issued a decree to stop the implementation of the court order. The signs and signals show no progress as the Bahraini regime continues to crack down on members of the opposition and harass human rights defender. It has also revealed the limits of its tolerance, filing the lawsuit weeks after senior U.S. State Department official Tom Malinowski met with leaders form Al Wefaq. Shortly after, Malinowski was ordered to leave Bahrain.

“The idea is to prevent society from communicating with the outside world, and to pressure us into giving in and abandon our demands,” says political assistant to the secretary general of Al Wefaq, Khalil Al-Marzooq. He says he suspects the minister of justice’s decision to block the suspension was a result of outside pressure, specifically from the United States. “The royal family is a political party in itself, where the justice minister who belongs to that family oversees the activities of political parties in Bahrain. This is against democracy,” says Al-Marzooq. “He has been given space to harass political parties and directly interfere in our political rights which are protected by the country’s constitution.” According to Al-Marzooq, Al Wefaq should be able to continue its political activities after the announcement of the justice minister.

Al-Marzooq says that Al Wefaq had informed the court it would hold its General Assembly on 4 December 2014, however the court disregarded this. In a press release issued on 29 October Al Wefaq said, “this raises questions on whether the lawsuit is meant to cripple Al Wefaq’s opinion to boycott the upcoming elections, or to correct its legal status.”

“If we join the elections and participate, it means we accept the situation and give up our demands, and the regime will have no incentive to sacrifice or implement change,” Al-Marzooq adds. “We do not want to legitimize the current corrupt situation that strips us from our rights. It is not an inclusive system that embraces all Bahrainis.”

Al-Marzooq continued to claim that most candidates running for election are mainly independent and do not represent a given party, arguing that if the percentage of independent candidates is higher than of those within a political group, there is an error in the political arrangement in Bahrain. In the 2010 elections, independent candidates won 11 seats out of 40 in the parliament’s lower chamber, according to the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

The split in the Bahraini society has gone beyond ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ democracy. Although the division between Sunnis and Shias in Bahrain was always more economic and political than religious, government officials were successful in splitting the society into opposition, and opposition to the opposition. The dispute between the two sects is based on unwritten policies and discriminatory and systematic practices that excludes the Shias, like forbidding them from joining the army in positions that allowed them access to weapons. The government favors Sunnis for certain positions, especially ones with the power to make tangible decisions. Geographically, Bahrain is designed in a way that segregates the Sunni from the Shia villages, excluding very few areas where a mix of both reside. This makes it easier for riot police and security forces to raid villages and target houses, without disrupting the peace of their supporters’ villages (mistakenly assuming that all Sunnis support the government, which is a myth).

Al Marzooq says he believes some government-supporting groups will participate in these upcoming elections, simply to feed into the sectarian game the regime is fueling amongst the people, and show disapproval of the opposition’s decisions, not necessarily because they believe in the election process or its outcome.

A female protester holding up a banner calling for the boycott of elections in Bahrain.

A female protester holding up a banner calling for the boycott of elections in Bahrain.

Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a prominent human rights activist sentenced to life imprisonment wrote a letter from behind bars emphasizing the importance of boycotting the elections. He said elections in Bahrain lack fairness and equality because of what he called manipulation of demographics through political naturalization, and manipulation in the distribution of constituencies on the basis of sectarian affiliation and political orientation. However Alkhawaja says boycotting alone is enough to force the power to respond to the demands of reform and fulfill their obligations, and will not accommodate the anger and frustration building inside the people. Therefore, it is necessary, he says, for community leaders and the people to unite their efforts in order to escalate the peaceful popular movement actively and orderly, and earn more solidarity and international support.

On Social Media

The video above has been circulated on social media, showing Nayef Al-Jassem, a candidate from the Southern province delivering a speech in his campaign to win the votes of the people in his district. Al-Jassem decided to bring along an interpreter to translate his speech to “Urdu” urging the audience, consisting mainly of Asian nationalities, to vote for him. The person who shot this video can be heard saying “we don’t have racism, we’re all Bahrainis.”

This video reveals the level of political naturalization reached in Bahrain, which the opposition says is about “100 thousand naturalized” added to the population of Bahrain within the previous ten years. That adds up to about a quarter of the total population. Although it is unclear whether the Asian workers in the audience hold Bahraini citizenship, it is safe to conclude that if they are expected to vote for Al-Jassem, they must hold the Bahraini citizenship.

While this video has triggered mixed feelings amongst people on social media, the reactions were mostly negative. Critics say that this is merely a tactic whereby the government favors politically naturalized citizens over its own people, whose demands and needs are being ignored. There are two kinds of naturalized citizens, the first kind are those who were born and raised in Bahrain, or immigrated a while ago, and are now integrated in the society. The second are those who are politically naturalized, brought from other countries to serve in police forces. As the percentage of the politically naturalized rises, there is a concern whether the votes will represent the original Bahraini population, or just a large portion of people who were brought to the country for political purposes. On the other hand, some might welcome the idea of approaching migrant workers and naturalized citizens and argue that the opposition should take on a similar measure and reach out to the minorities within the society to include them in the development process of the country.

Crackdown on Human Rights Activists

Meanwhile, two prominent human rights activists were put behind bars, less than six weeks before the elections. On October 14, activist Zainab Alkhawaja, who is eight months pregnant, was arrested on charges of insulting the king after ripping a photo of him earlier in 2012. During her trial, Alkhawaja asked to speak and is reported to have said, “I am the daughter of a proud and free man. My mother brought me into this world free, and I will give birth to a free baby boy even if it is inside our prisons. It is my right, and my responsibility as a free person, to protest against oppression and oppressors.” Alkhawaja was arrested in court for once again tearing up a photo of the king and setting it in front of the judge. She has been released on 19 November 19, but is still facing sentencing on December 4 and 9 in four cases.

Early in October, Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested for tweeting about a group of his countrymen allegedly cooperating with the Islamic State (ISIS). The Bahraini interior ministry said in a statement that Rajab was summoned because his derogatory tweets “denigrated government institutions.”

“The government wants to create an image of people participating and that everything is back to normal, even if only 5-10 percent of voters take part,” Nabeel Rajab told the Guardian in September , “But we will have another four years of problems if we don’t solve them before elections.” Rajab was released on November 2 pending a court verdict, and his next hearing will be held on January 20.

Several NGOs and human rights organizations including Human Rights First issued statements condemning the detention of both Nabeel and Zainab, decrying Bahrain’s negative approach in an attempt to calm the unrest. The government has been ignoring calls for their release, including statements by officials at the United Nations and the European Parliament.

“Attempts to asphyxiate the peaceful opposition and silence civil society figures like Nabeel Rajab and Zainab al Khawaja will only backfire on the Bahrain government,” says Brian Dooley of Human Rights First. “The regime has tried harassment, torture, jail and intimidation to end its political unrest. Eventually it will have to try reform.”

Continuing on Shaky Ground

Matar Matar, former MP

Matar Matar, former MP

Actions of the Bahraini government are making it hard for opposition members to believe and trust in the election process and its intention to implement change in the country. The regime has been somewhat obvious, where it prosecutes Bahraini subjects to set an example, sometimes acquitting those deemed guilty in order to highlight their benevolence, as well as to avoid international embarrassment. These actions are demonstrations of the arbitrariness of unregulated monarchical power.

Former member of the parliament Matar Matar, now based in Washington D.C., says the current election process lacks legitimacy as the king refuses to share any part of his absolute power. “Still he appoints senior judges, the executive cabinet and the Upper House. And the gerrymandering in the lower house is hiding the will of the wide majority of Shia and Sunnis who are calling for reform.”

With no clear alternative for political reform in Bahrain, Matar says Bahrainis will continue to protest and call for change through peaceful manners. “We are sure the regime cannot control the marginalization of the wide majority the population.” Expecting a wide commitment to boycott the election Matar says, “any outcome of the coming election will not represent the Bahrainis.”

The lack of seriousness in working with the opposition to implement change and reform, and the continued harassment of opposition groups and activists, make the path for democratic change unclear.

“While we have elections, Bahrain is considered to be an authoritarian regime with an absolute monarch, King Hamad, who controls all powers. The election has nothing to do with the process of Executive Cabinet formation. The king can choose who ever he likes. We are fine to participate in an imperfect process if it can survive but the parliament, under this context, is not functioning,” says Matar.

The government is still cracking down on opposition groups and human rights defenders. More strategically than before, the government now slowly moves away from direct contact between police and people, and more towards systematic oppression through a legal framework. Although protests still break out intermittently, and riot police still shoot at people leaving injured behind, the bigger danger now are the laws recently created to legally prosecute citizens and activist. An example is a new law that sentences anyone who publicly insults the king up to seven years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 dinars ($26,500 USD).

With no clear destination for the country, it seems as though the compass is lost, and a concrete strategic plan is absent from the scene. The government and the opposition can’t agree on terms to move forward. The regime is not willing to sacrifice and the opposition is not prepared to give up their demands and move backwards, leaving Bahrain in an ongoing political limbo.

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