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Bahrain vote: The rise of the 'random unknowns'

With a salary of $150,000 a year, a generous pension plan, a diplomatic passport and a car - typically a Mercedes or a BMW - a new crop of unknowns is flocking to politics. The fresh blood, however, is unlikely to reboot the stalled system

With more than 400 candidates vying for 40 parliamentary and 30 municipal seats in Bahrain’s fourth election under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, it could be argued that democracy is thriving in the Gulf island kingdom. After all, only Bahrain and Kuwait, among the six countries that make up the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) - the others being Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - can boast of having elected parliaments.

Why then, is there such a mood of deep cynicism in the kingdom about the vote this Saturday?

In large part, it is thanks to a decision by the opposition political societies to boycott the election, leaving the field open for people to run as independents, most of whom have no political experience whatsoever.

Mansoor al-Jamri is the editor in chief of al-Wasat - the country’s only independent newspaper, who openly calls many of the candidates “random unknowns.”

According to Jamri, “there are only a handful of experienced people - the others are running for a good package.” And he has a point.

Being a member of parliament in Bahrain is handsomely rewarded, with a salary of $150,000 a year, a generous pension plan, a diplomatic passport and a car, typically a Mercedes or a BMW.

Now, it can be argued that lacking in experience is not in itself a bad thing. But when it’s coupled with an election boycott in a country riven by sectarian dissent, the result is clear. No coherent alternatives are emerging to deal with the most pressing issue Bahrain faces: a bitter political impasse that has gone on for nearly four years.

Bahrain has been wracked by unrest that began when the government used force to crush a largely peaceful protest movement in 2011. The kingdom, which has a majority Shiite Muslim population, has been ruled for more than 200 years by the Sunni al-Khalifas.

Shiites have long complained of discrimination, high unemployment and poor housing.

It is against this backdrop of deep resentment in a divided society that the current election is being run.

In March 2011, peaceful protesters, predominantly but not entirely Shiite, who had occupied the Pearl Roundabout - an iconic landmark in the capital Manama - were driven out by security forces, after King Hamad declared a state of emergency. He brought in troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help restore order and end demands for democratic reforms. .

In the months that followed, thousands of demonstrators, as well as individuals who were presumed to have supported the protests were arrested, hundreds of whom were subsequently tried by special military courts. Approximately 4,000 people were summarily dismissed from their jobs. Nearly all of the victims were Shiite.

Since the uprising began in 2011, activists claim that more than a 100 people have been killed, and hundreds injured although the government disputes this. Three people were also allegedly beaten to death in detention, while five police officers were also killed in the violence.

At the time the opposition Shiite al-Wefaq party had 18 MPs. They all resigned in protest and their seats were subsequently filled by independents in a bye-election that had a dismal turnout of 13 percent.

As international condemnation grew, King Hamad appointed Egyptian human rights expert, Cherif Bassiouni to lead an independent investigation of the government’s handling of the protest. The Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry (BICI) proved to be a comprehensive and damning indictment.

It found excessive use of force by security personnel, numerous abuses, including torture in detention and the unfair sacking of employees in the private and public sectors.

Crucially, the BICI conclusions - as damning as they were - went on to be accepted in full by the king. He promised sweeping reforms of the police and vowed to re-hire all those who had been let go from their jobs. He also committed to a national dialogue that was supposed to achieve political reforms.

Although people were reinstated, and some progress has been made on police reform, the dialogue is in stalemate and critics argue that human rights abuses continue as promises remain unfulfilled.

Many prominent political and human rights activists remain in jail, their convictions based solely on confessions that, as the Bassiouni report documented, were obtained under torture.

One of those detained is Ibrahim Sharif the leader of Wa’ad, a secular party that is also boycotting the election.  He is in the fourth year of a five year sentence. Others, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja the co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, have been jailed for life.

When the king announced in September that elections scheduled for later in the year would go ahead as planned, it left Wefaq, the leading opposition party in a difficult position.

There had been some hope that its participation would have helped move the country toward reconciliation. Pressure was brought to bear by some external players, including the British government who urged the opposition to take advantage of the election and use it as a chance to break a deadlock that has severely dented Bahrain’s image and economy.

But Wefaq had made it clear in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa that involvement came with a price: the government would have to show significant movement on power sharing and agree on the release of political prisoners. That did not happen.

However, the Crown Prince - who also serves as first deputy prime minister and is widely seen as a moderate - did put on the table several key issues including: security for all; a fair judiciary; parliamentary reform including some oversight of the Shura council (upper house) appointments; the right to question ministers including Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa who has been in post, unelected, since 1971.

The government has also reorganised the electoral districts, dropping the number of governorates from five to four, in a move it claims will addressed the long simmering issue of gerrymandering.
But Khalil Marzook, a senior Wefaq leader has called the offer “a sham.” Promises of security and reforming the judiciary are too vague to be taken seriously and the Shura Council - made up of 40 members appointed by the king - will continue to reflect the wishes of the ruling family.

Regarding electoral reform, which has reduced the number of governorates from five to four, Marzook said the most seats his party could expect to win had dropped from 18 to 16 in the 40-member lower house. Holding ministers accountable in Parliament was unlikely to happen, especially as it would require a two-thirds majority vote to do so. 

With all that levied against him, Marzook insists he is unapologetic about the boycott, despite criticism from many observers, who argue that it is better to be inside the tent than out.

“The strategic blunder would be to participate in a system that undermines you, legitimises your oppression and gives you no power,” Marzook said.

Wefaq is encouraging people not to vote while the government is running a campaign in the local media urging the electorate to “vote for Bahrain.” But apathy is widespread. As one businessman recently said in conversation, “This election will be a failure. A parliament without an opposition, what sort of parliament is that?”

That sort of scepticism, coupled with an anticipated very low turnout from Shiite voters, means that the election will achieve little more than to ensure that the current impasse remains in place.

It is in this climate that Marzook, continues to insist that Wefaq stands a better chance of getting results outside the parliament, rather than in.

“What brought the government to negotiate with us was when we resigned from parliament. They did not listen to us when we were in Parliament,” Marzook said.

However, Jamri and many others continue to disagree, arguing that the opposition’s approach “eliminates flexibility.”

According to Jamri: “Wefaq has taken a categorical approach and the government has cornered them. It’s checkmate - and I think everybody loses.”

- Bill Law is a Sony award-winning journalist. He joined the BBC in 1995 and since 2002 has reported extensively from the Middle East. He has travelled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia many times. In 2003 he was one of the first journalists to cover the beginnings of the insurgency that engulfed Iraq. His documentary The Gulf: Armed & Dangerous which aired in late 2010 anticipated the revolutions that became the Arab Spring. He then covered the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Before leaving the BBC in April 2014, Mr Law was the corporation’s Gulf analyst. He now works as a freelance journalist focusing on the Gulf.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: Bahraini men attend an election campaign rally for candidate Adel al-Thawathi who running in the upcoming elections, in the city of Hamad Town, south of Manama (AFP)