by Marc Owen Jones
Bahrain’s November elections were seen by some as a competition between the government and the opposition: To participate was to vote for the status quo, while boycotting reaffirmed one’s oppositional credentials. For its part, the government did as much as it could to encourage people to vote. Raffles with iphones as prizes were set up for those who voted. When the carrot looked like it was failing, they used a board with a nail in it. A report in the alayam stated that those who voted would be given preferential treatment in terms of public employment and service provision. Soon after the election, a job advert for the Ministry of the Interior stipulated that potential candidates should supply proof that they had voted in the November elections.
Despite this, the idea of Bahrain ‘after the elections’ is a fairly arbitrary notion, as the significance of elections usually rests on the ability of those elections to offer substantial transformative potential to the state and its citizens, whether in terms of economic, social, or political change. Given the political stalemate, and the government’s recent raft of repressive legislation, the government looks like it is digging in. Indeed, the elected house still remains a talking shop with very little power. The government is still appointed by the King on the recommendation of the world’s longest serving Prime Minister, and the upper house also appointed by the King still serves as a further safety net protecting Al-Khalifa hegemony. Indeed, virtually none of the reforms demanded by the opposition in the Manama Document have been realised. There is no unicameral elected parliament with full legislative power, nor does there seem to be an end to political naturalisation of foreign Sunnis. There is also little sign that the judiciary will be independent from the ruling family.
The only substantial concession made by the government recently is the redrawing of electoral districts to combat the flagrant gerrymandering that reduced the strength of the Shi’a vote. However, this was done without consulting Bahrain’s political societies, and although the new redrawing follows more the principle of one person one vote, Al Wifaq claims that it does so at the expense of ‘scattering’ their constituency. In other words, the Shi’a vote went from being distorted to being scattered. Given Al Wefaq’s boycott of the elections, and with the exception of 13 Shia independent candidates – three of whom are women, the country’s Shi’a are underrepresented in parliament. This under representation of Shi’a, coupled with the arrest of Ali Salman, the general secretary of Al Wifaq, has provoked further sectarian strife in the post-electoral milieu.
However, most political societies have lost out to loyalist Sunni independent candidates. Although the loss of seats for parties like Al Minbar and Al Asalah might bring some comfort to those fears of Islamist expansionism, the spectre of the Islamic State looms large in Bahrain. After a number of Bahrainis defected to the Islamic state, including members of the security services, there have been increased fears of an attack on Bahrain. Furthermore, the sectarian genie unleashed by the authorities coupled with perceived governmental corruption and collusion has provided fertile breeding ground for Sunnis disenfranchised with both the Shi’a opposition and the Al-Khalifa government. Da’ish Twitter accounts threatening Bahrain have appeared, while the Bahraini Mirror has reported that the Islamic State blew up a house in Syria belonging to someone working in the Bahraini Army.
While Bahrain’s small size and questionable sovereignty has always made it vulnerable to the influence of outside players, the new cold war between Iran and Saudi is likely to cause increasing internal tension. For example, the arrest of Ali Salman prompted Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah to criticise the Bahraini government, which also drew in influential cleric Isa Qassim. This has led to further fears that the conflict in Iraq and Syria could spill over into Bahrain, further polarising society and perpetuating unrest.
As it stands, the government does not appear to have a clear strategy to move beyond Bahrain’s impasse. Its recent actions have highlighted a tendency to antagonise the country’s Shi’a population, while Bahrain’s involvement in anti-IS airstrikes has been moderated by a lack of effort to tackle against internal IS sympathisers.
In sum, the elections have really failed to produce any beneficial results to Bahrain’s polity. Indeed, the divisiveness they have prompted has simply compounded issues of polarisation. With no clear political solution on the horizon, low-level insurgency is set to continue. The possibility of an Islamic State attack is also not unlikely, and would undoubtedly tip an already tense situation to the brink of a disaster – especially if it targeted violent fringe groups of Bahrain’s Shi’a opposition.
Other posts in the series:
- Bahrain redux, by Neil Partrick
- The ‘red line’ of Sheikh Ali Salman’s arrest: Bahrain moves into new territory, by Christopher Davidson
- Radical spatial-demographic transformations: the need for an intersectional view, by Mohammed AlDaaysi
- Britain’s base and Bahraini politics, by Jane Kinninmont
- The path to reform in Bahrain, by Ali Alaswad