Bahrain Freedom Movement

The Gulf state of Bahrain goes to the polls on Saturday to elect representatives to their lower house of parliament and five municipal councils.

Intense competition for each seat is expected after groups representing the Shia majority, who boycotted the last vote in 2002, decided to contest the election.

But although the monarchy has been praised in recent years for its democratic progress, recent moves by the Sunni-led authorities have led some to question its commitment to reform and human rights.

What are the major issues?

Although the government has gone some way towards easing the long-running conflict between Bahrain’s Shia majority and the ruling Sunni minority, Sunni-Shia tension has again come to the fore.

Opposition and human rights groups continue to question the Bahraini government’s commitment to human rights and democracy.

They say that moves including the release of political prisoners and the expansion of press freedom are merely attempts to hide the fact that the country remains an absolute monarchy.

Although women got the right to vote in 2001, women’s rights remain a key issue, as strong discrimination against their participation in Bahraini politics still exists.

The main Islamist parties are unwilling to back women candidates, who are not allowed to campaign in mosques like their male counterparts.

However, Bahrain will definitely get its first female member of parliament this year, as Latifah al-Qoud stood as the sole candidate for a constituency and won the seat by default when registration closed.

Will elections be free and fair and who is monitoring it?

The authorities have promised that the upcoming election will be held with absolute transparency and under the full control of the judiciary.

However, many Shia say changes to constituency boundaries in 2002 have drastically reduced their chances of winning a majority.

According to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, some mainly Shia constituencies now contain 10 to 20 times more voters when compared to mixed or Sunni districts.

In September, the authorities sacked and deported a Sudanese-born British adviser, Salah al-Bandar, who distributed a report saying a secret network headed by the minister overseeing the elections was allegedly working within the government to ensure Sunnis maintain their political dominance.

Bahrain’s High Criminal Court has banned the publication of news relating to what became known as the “Bandargate” affair.

Following pressure from NGOs, authorities have agreed to allow Bahraini citizens to monitor the poll independently, rather than as part of the elections committee.

What happened last time?

Bahrain’s first elections for decades were held in October 2002, but these were boycotted by four major Shia and secular opposition groups.

They objected to constitutional changes granting the appointed upper chamber of parliament equal legislative powers to the elected lower chamber.

The boycott allowed Sunni Islamists and pro-government groups to win the majority of the seats.

How does the electoral system work?

When the King of Bahrain, Shaykh Hamad Bin-Isa Al Khalifah, came to power in 1999, he began a cautious process of democratic reform.

In 2001 National Action Charter transformed the country into a constitutional monarchy, and the year after, a two-chamber National Assembly was formed.

The National Assembly consists of an appointed Consultative Council and an elected Council of Representatives, each comprising 40 members.

The Council of Representatives’ members are elected by universal adult suffrage for four-year terms from 40 electoral districts.

Since political parties are formally banned, the elections are being contested by “political societies”.

Of Bahrain’s 700,000 citizens, those aged 20 or over can vote.

Resident citizens of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are also allowed to vote, including several thousand foreign Sunni Muslims serving in the Bahraini military and security services.

Each candidate must win at least 51% of the votes cast in their constituency to be elected, or face a second round on 2 December.

So what political societies are running?

The main Sunni group is al-Asalah al-Islamiyah (Islamic Purity) Society, which has seven MPs in the Council of Representatives and stresses the Islamic identity of Bahrain. Al-Asalah has issued a combined list with fellow Sunni society the National Islamic Forum.

Al-Minbar al-Islami (Islamic Platform) Society is the second major society in the Council. It is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and promotes a conservative social agenda.

The largest Shia opposition party, al-Wifaq al-Watani (National Accord) Islamic Society boycotted the October 2002 parliamentary election but is widely expected to win a large number of seats in the upcoming poll.

Bahrain’s second largest Shia group, the Islamic Action Society, is also standing this year after a 2002 boycott. It has its roots in Shia militant group the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain and has advocated the introduction of Sharia law.

The secular National Democratic Action Society is Bahrain’s main leftist political society, is running after boycotting the previous elections.

Also secular, the Democratic Progressive Platform has a strong liberal social agenda and seeks to defend human rights.

The former communist party of Bahrain, now called the Democratic Society, has three MPs in parliament and campaigns for political liberalisation and social freedoms.

The Haqq (Justice) Society, a breakaway group from al-Wifaq, is boycotting this year’s parliamentary election. The society recently called on the UN to compel the country to write a new constitution.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages


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