Bahraini’s take to the polls amid doubts and fears

Bahraini’s take to the polls amid doubts and fears

Bahrain’s parliamentary elections are described by observers as a vote unlikely to bring much change to a country tightly controlled by its rulers.

An estimated 320,000 out of a population of 1.3 million eligible Bahrainis are set to head to polling stations on Saturday, October 23, 2010 to cast their votes and elect parliamentary candidates amid rising tensions and fears of a potential return of authoritarianism. The upcoming election is the third since King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa introduced a new constitution and parliamentary elections in 2002.

 According to experts, the assembly has limited powers when it comes to policy-making as its bills must be passed by an upper house whose members are appointed by the king. Although ultimate power in the country rests with the royal family, it could exacerbate sectarian tensions.

Although Bahrain does not allow international monitoring of its elections, 379 Bahrainis have registered to monitor the vote. The Ministry of Justice is normally responsible for supervising the election. According to the minister of justice and Islamic affairs, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, and chairman of the Higher Committee to oversee the integrity of elections, polling stations will be monitored by registered observers from Bahraini non-governmental organizations. He added that the National Commission for Human Rights in Bahrain and four NGOs are also expected to oversee the parliamentary and municipal elections. A second round of voting is set to take place on October 26 if candidates do not receive at least 50% of the vote.

A total of 127 candidates are competing for 40 seats. Bahrain‘s main Shiite opposition group, Wefaq, has fielded 18 candidates.

During the 2002 elections, Wefaq boycotted the first elections in protest of parliament’s limited powers; however, it did participate in the 2006 polls prompting the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, which disputes the legitimacy of the king’s reform process, to break away from the group.

Since then leaders of the Haq Movement have been targeted in a security clampdown by the government which claims a network has been uncovered that planned to topple the regime by instigating violence.

Al-Assala and Al-Menbar National Islamic Society and Sunni Islamist groups have fielded eight candidates each. In the 2006 polls, Al-Assala secured seven seats while Al-Menbar, the political wing of the Al-Islah Society, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, gained eight seats.  

Al-Menbar National Islamic Society, chaired by Dr. Salah Ali expects to win 8 seats in parliament due to its popularity. During previous parliamentary sessions the society has succeeded in proposing nearly 112 laws and 619 bills in addition to the formation of 12 investigating committees. It submitted approximately 650 questions to ministers in the current 2006-2010 sessions and formed 11 interim committees. The group has participated in the discussion of more than 40 of the total questions submitted to parliament during the last parliamentary session.  Of the 619 bills however, the government only responded to 290.

The opposition’s primary concern lies with the ten general polling stations where voters can cast votes regardless of their place of residence; making monitoring more difficult. In fact, critics have accused Bahrain of having marked out its voting districts to ensure the Shiite opposition could not obtain a majority in parliament.

 Densely populated Shiite districts have up to 15,000 registered voters, as opposed to areas where only Sunni candidates are running, which have a much smaller number on the electoral roll.

Observers expect that the current elections amid political changes may facilitate political stability after sectarian turmoil. Governmental actions that have taken place recently are considered by some as blatant interference in freedom of expression ahead of parliamentary and municipal elections.