The first parliamentary and municipal elections since 2011 on the small island nation of Bahrain were just recently held. A total of 419 candidates was registered for this year’s campaign, 226 of which (including 22 women) were running for parliament. The National Assembly (Bahraini parliament) is formed from 40 elected members of the Council of Representatives (the lower house) and 40 royally-appointed members of the Consultative Council (the upper house).
“The turnout today was 51.5 percent compared to the 67.7 per cent in the 2010 elections,” - said the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa. It’s curious to note that every citizen of this Persian Gulf Kingdom has the right to vote once he has reached the age of 20, which amounts to nearly 350 thousand people. As the local newspaper “Gulf News” reported, a politician that was aiming at obtaining a seat in Parliament must receive at least 50 percent of votes in an election district.
Russia welcomed the elections in Bahrain as an important stage in its national political process, which will facilitate the development of the country, said a representatives of the Department of Information and Press of the Russian Foreign Ministry. According to this body, the polling was well-organized while the turnout was relatively high. The votes are still being counted under the watchful eye of 300 observers from different national NGOs.
A total of five opposition parties that represent the Shia majority have boycotted the elections. They believe that the government has deliberately changed the electoral laws to prevent them from getting a broad representation in parliament. As a result, the main contenders for seats in the Council of Representatives came from the Sunni Islamist and Salafist movements. Once the votes were counted it became obvious that out of 40 election districts only 6 were getting a representative, while 32 will be forced to hold additional polling. This information was confirmed by Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa.
The biggest Shiite opposition movement in Bahrain, Al-Wefaq (Consent), which boycotted the elections, has been criticizing the authorities by claiming that the turnout numbers are exaggerated. “The authorities are trying to fool the people and ignore the boycott of voters under the guise of good turnout.” – said a representative of Al-Wefaq. The opposition demands political and economic reforms, calling for an adoption of a new constitution and the restriction of powers the royal family has been enjoying, along with broad recognition of religious freedoms of Shia Muslims, who constitute up to 70% of country’s population. Some time ago the opposition proposed the royal family to elect an independent prime minister. But once the negotiations failed the ruling Sunni minority became openly hostile to the Shia majority. The conflict is intensified by a huge number of migrant workers, coming to Bahrain from Iran, Pakistan, India and other South Asian countries. The Shia parties fear that once the electoral rights are granted to foreigners, (which constitute up to 40% of the population), the balance of powers in the kingdom will be changed.
Nevertheless, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa is persistently trying to promote civil society and democracy in the country. He made these parliamentary elections possible in the first place — it’s no wonder that the real opposition occupied half the seats in the Council of Representatives. Under his reign women were granted the right to vote and in many other respects they have obtained equal rights with men (to the extent that is possible in an Islamic country). Now Bahrain has become an important experiment. Can Sunnis and Shiites live in peace with each other when the country is as divided as Bahrain today? And can one truly build a democracy through reforms imposed on society? Today the king has a hard time balancing Bahrain’s policy between different communities and movements. And the more freedom they get, the more difficult it is for him to keep this balance. Free elections have opened a Pandora’s box — since the majority of seats in the Council of Representatives were occupied by the Islamists — by the intolerant Salafi Sunni and Shiite radicals alike.
There is no doubt that the mere fact that the elections were held in Bahrain – is a positive development, since the ruling dynasty is craving to achieve reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites to be able to carry out reforms for the greater good of Bahraini society. It was never an easy task, but as external players are getting involved in the internal affairs the reconciliation process becomes hardly attainable. The ruling Sunni dynasty has been supported by Saudi Arabia, while the Shiites are trying to obtain assistance from Iran, with which Bahrain has a long historical, religious and cultural ties, but at the same time — a lot of contradictions and differences. It’s no coincidence that Riyadh has been following this elections closely since they may directly affect the oppressed Shia minority living in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
The tension went so high that the Bahraini Foreign Ministry was forced to firmly condemn the “provocative” statements on the freedom of religion in the kingdom that had been made by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The spokesperson for the foreign ministry of Iran, Marzieh Afham, expressed “deep concern” that the Bahraini authorities had allegedly restricted the mourning ceremonies for Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. “Such measures will not help create a confidence-building atmosphere between the Bahraini government and nation, and will rather deteriorate the situation in there,” Afkham said in Tehran today. ” –said Marzieh Afham, according to the news agency FarsNews.
In response, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain stated that since ancient times, Muslims and non-Muslims alike enjoyed complete freedom of worship. “We call upon Iran to respect the principles of good neighborliness and the sovereignty of countries and to put an end to irresponsible statements. Bahrain has since olden times provided full freedom to all religious sects, both Muslims and non-Muslims, to exercise their rituals easily and without interference from anyone,” - reads the official statement issued by the Ministry.
At the same time the Shia opposition groups claim that security forces assaulted the processions of worshipers mourning the martyrdom anniversary of Imam Hussein, mourning flags had been removed from the streets in areas with a predominantly Shia population while special buildings constructed for mourning were being destroyed. Thus, local political analysts are proven right: the face off in Bahrain will continue. They believe that the opposition obeys orders from Iran, which is interested in the continuation of uncertainty and instability in this country. Most of them are convinced that there’s no end for the crisis since politicians in power do not have the political experience needed to reconcile all parties and put an end to the crisis.
Victor Mikhin, member correspondent of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.