Parliamentary Elections in Bahrain
27 Nov 2014
The November 2014 parliamentary elections in Bahrain took place against a background of continuing sectarian tensions in the country. This briefing note looks at the context of these elections and the controversy that they have raised.
On 22 November 2014, voters in Bahrain took part in the country’s fourth parliamentary election in its history, and the first to take place since widespread protests began in 2011. More than 400 candidates contested 40 parliamentary and 30 municipal seats. There is much that could be considered positive about the elections, including the fact that they took place at all – of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states, only Bahrain and Kuwait have elected parliaments. In addition to a parliament, Bahrain has a 40-member shura council, whose members are appointed by the King, and which has power of veto over all legislation.
However, the elections have been controversial, in particular because of the decision by five opposition groups, including the largest and most important opposition grouping in the country – Wefaq – to boycott the election and call on their supporters not to vote. Wefaq is primarily a party representing Shia Muslims, who are estimated to make up around 60% of the population, although the ruling elite of the country is Sunni, led by King Hamad ibn Isa Al-Khalifa.
The absence of Wefaq and its supporters from the election is symptomatic of the political impasse in which the country has found itself since protests began in 2011. These protests were inspired by other Arab Spring uprisings, and the key demands were for the same democratic freedoms as those demanded by protestors across the Arab world. However, the specific religious demographics of Bahrain meant that the protests rapidly became a source of sectarian tension. The majority of the protestors are Shia Muslims, who, despite being in the majority, occupy less than 18 per cent of top government jobs.
Shia Bahrainis complain of sectarian discrimination and marginalisation
Shia Bahrainis have long complained of systematic marginalisation at the hands of the Kingdom’s Sunni rulers, in matters relating to housing, education and citizenship, as well as employment. Thus, the issue of sectarian discrimination was added to the more general demands for democratic freedoms that motivated Bahrain’s uprising. The response of the Bahraini government arguably contributed to the sectarian dimension – 35 Shia mosques were demolished, 31 Shia Bahrainis had their citizenship revoked, and the Shia Olamaa Islamic Council was closed down by the Government shortly before the fourth anniversary of the uprising.
Sectarian tension in Bahrain has developed against a backdrop of increasing sectarianism in the wider region, which is related to rivalry between Sunni-dominated Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran in gaining greater regional influence, and is manifested in supporting different sides in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. It is commonplace in Bahrain for Shia protestors to face accusations of loyalty to Iran, or for Iran to be accused of orchestrating protest in the Kingdom.
Following the government crackdown against the protestors, which was widely condemned by international observers and human rights groups, the country has taken part in a faltering process of reconciliation mandated by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The BICI, led by Egyptian International Human Rights Lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, variously praised and criticised the Government’s response to concerns. As Bassiouni recently stated in an interview with Al-Monitor, “In comparison to what existed, significant progress has been made. In comparison to what can be done, of course there’s still room to go”. Meanwhile, the absence of a political solution to the demands of protestors has contributed to a growing atmosphere of sectarianism in the Kingdom, within the wider context of growing regional sectarianism between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
While it had been hoped that the elections would be a step towards a political settlement, and international actors including the UK government had attempted to persuade Wefaq to take part, the party’s leaders felt that the Government’s response to the protestors was not sufficient to make the elections credible. To the suggestion made by critics that Wefaq made a strategic blunder by not taking part, Chief Political Advisor Khalil Marzook responded, “The strategic blunder would be to participate in a system that undermines you, legitimises your oppression and gives you no power”.
Saudi Arabia has also seen tensions between the Sunni majority and Shia minority.
Without the participation of the largest opposition party, election campaigning was dominated by, in the words of Bahraini journalist Mansoor al-Jamri, ‘random unknowns’. Al-Jamri also contended that the election campaign was marred by the negative political landscape, and that “hostilities, rivalry and bickering have sapped the energy from the situation”. The Government has stated that 51.5% of registered voters took part in the election, but the opposition contends that the actual figure was around 30%.
Additionally, the Government was accused of manipulating electoral boundaries to affect the result, and threatening voters with sanctions for not voting as a means of increasing turnout. The issue of the political representation of migrant workers, who make up around 55% of the state’s population, and who have no voting rights, has not been addressed.
One country that has been watching the elections closely is Bahrain’s neighbour and one of its closest allies, Saudi Arabia, whose military supported the Bahraini government in putting down the protests of 2011. Saudi Arabia has also experienced tensions and violence between the Sunni majority and Shia minority, who are concentrated in the Eastern province adjacent to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia’s concerns lie not only in the way in which the political representation of Shia citizens is resolved, but also in the way in which Bahrain accommodates Sunni Islamist political parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood that are also contesting the election.
In the wake of negative international media coverage of Bahrain and its elections, the Kingdom’s government and its supporters have pointed out the progress that has been made in clamping down on malpractice by state actors and prosecuting those responsible, claiming that Bahrain has been unfairly singled out for criticism. Moeness Al Mardi, Chairman of the Bahrain Journalists Association, complained that “opponents are highly trained on how to deal with the foreign media, mount systematic drives on social networking sites, and gain support of the foreign community”. Regardless of this, it is clear that sectarian tensions will not be resolved while unequal treatment of the Shia majority on the part of the state is not addressed in a meaningful way. Equally, last weekend’s elections, while an indication of the country’s democratic potential, will not lead to a political solution while the interests of a large number of Bahrainis remain unrepresented.
Sign up to receive the Roundup
Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.