Anti-incumbency feeling rises in Bahrain
Anti-incumbency feeling rises in Bahrain
Monday, June 14,2010 10:00
By By Abdellah Al-Derazi

As Bahrain heads toward elections for the lower house of Parliament in September or October, a climate of public unhappiness with the incumbents prevails.

The Parliament elected four years ago was dominated by Islamists, including the Shiite opposition Al-Wefaq Islamic Society on the one side and the two Sunni groups – Al-Minbar Islamic Society (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Al-Asala Political Society (Salafist) – allied with the government on the other. Most secular and leftist candidates, who probably would have allied with Al-Wefaq to form a majority, did not win seats due to government interference.

This year’s elections will see a similar cast of characters, as all these blocs will run again while others, such as the opposition Haqq movement, will stay out as it did last time. But a large number of independent candidates, including women and businesspeople, are expected to run. In 2006 the government discouraged businesspeople from running, but this time they seem determined to get into the game and put up their own candidates rather than lobbying for the support of others.

For example, Kadhem al-Saeed, a member of the board of the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry, recently announced that he would run. Given the public’s sense that those elected last time accomplished little, new candidates running either on lists or as independents stand a good chance, making the outcome of the elections unpredictable.

The government will use the tools at its disposal in order to control the outcome. Chief among these tools is the relatively powerful appointed upper house, the Shura Council. Opposition politician Ibrahim Sharif (secretary general of the National Democratic Action Society, Al-Waad) remarked recently that it will be impossible to score a goal against 40 goalkeepers, meaning the 40 members of the Shura Council who have equal legislative power.

The government might also try to perpetuate the sectarian power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites that characterized much of the 2006 Parliament. But such tactics can backfire. Political analysts across the country share the view that government-orchestrated attacks accusing Al-Wefaq of maintaining close ties to Iran ended up helping that group regain grassroots support it had lost to Haqq.

Al-Wefaq also gained support among Shiites due to its engagement on Bahrain’s highly divisive property issue. An investigation committee headed by Al-Wefaq found that 65 square kilometers of land valued at some 14 billion Bahraini Dinars (the equivalent of $37.1 billion) have been transferred to private ownership through dubious and corrupt practices since 2002. This money, the committee determined, could have solved the housing shortage for over 50,000 Bahrainis on a waiting list, most of whom are Shiites.

The opposition has been advocating an amendment to the elections law, unsuccessfully so far. Opposition concerns focus on three issues: districting, the existence of general voting centers, and voter lists.

With respect to districting, the Shiite-dominated Northern Governorate is densely populated but lightly represented. For example, the district in which Al-Wefaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman won has over 14,000 voters represented by one parliamentarian, while a district in the Southern Governorate has 400 voters represented by one parliamentarian.

The opposition has also raised questions about the existence of general centers at which any voter, regardless of district, may vote (apparently a Bahraini innovation). In 2006 the opposition accused the government of using the public centers to bring in busloads of soldiers and other pro-government voters in order to defeat popular Waad candidates Munira Fakhro and Abdulrahman al-Nuaimi. Regarding voter lists, these lists display only the name and the identification number of the voter, not his or her address, making it difficult for candidates to campaign door to door.

None of the issues raised by the opposition are likely to be resolved before the fall elections, although King Hamad might amend some other articles of the law, such as lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. The government is also likely to continue the policy of extending nationality to thousands of non-Bahraini Sunnis in order to sway the vote.

It is too early to predict the elections’ outcome, but it is safe to assume that many of the same players will continue to dominate, perhaps with a greater role played by businesspeople, many of whom are liberals. And the new Parliament will take up many of the same issues, such as housing, unemployment, security, public properties, health, and social security that the old one did.

The government might ease up a bit and offer a few concessions – such as allowing fairer electoral redistricting or giving more powers to the elected lower house – in an effort to demonstrate that the democratic experiment begun in 2000 is succeeding. In addition, new issues are emerging, such as the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission to compensate those whose rights were violated before 2000, and these might prove important in the next Parliament.

Abdellah Al-Derazi is secretary general of the Bahrain Human Rights Society. This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin. It can be accessed online at:, © 2010, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.