As Bahrain heads toward elections for the lower house of parliament in September or October, a climate of public unhappiness with the incumbents prevails. The parliament elected four years ago was dominated by Islamists, including the Shi’i opposition al-Wefaq Islamic Society on one side and the two Sunni groups al-Minbar Islamic Society (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) and al-Asala Political Society (Salafi), which allied with the government, on the other. Most secular and leftist candidates, who probably would have allied with al-Wefaq to form a majority bloc, did not win seats due to government interference.
The government will use the tools at its disposal in order to control the outcome. Chief among these tools is the relatively powerful appointed upper house, the Shura Council. Opposition politician Ebrahim Sharif (Secretary General of the National Democratic Action Society, al-Wa’d) remarked recently that it will be impossible to score a goal against 40 goalkeepers, meaning the 40 members of the Shura Council who have equal legislative power. The government might also try to perpetuate the sectarian power struggle between Sunni and Shi’i that characterized much of the 2006 parliament. But such tactics can backfire. Political analysts across the country share the view that government-orchestrated attacks accusing al-Wefaq of maintaining close ties to Iran ended up helping that group regain the grassroots support it had lost previously to Haqq.
Al Wefaq also gained support among Shi’i due to its engagement on the tiny kingdom’s highly divisive property issue. An investigation committee headed by al-Wefaq found that 65 square kilometers of land valued at some 14 billion Bahraini Dinars ($37.1 billion) has been transferred to private ownership through dubious and corrupt means since 2002. This money, the committee determined, could have solved the housing shortage for over 50,000 Bahrainis on a waiting list, most of whom are Shi’i.
The opposition has been advocating an amendment to the elections law, unsuccessfully so far. Opposition concerns focus on three issues: districting, the existence of general voting centers, and voter lists. With respect to districting, the Shi’i-dominated Northern Governorate is densely populated but lightly represented. For example, the district in which al-Wefaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman won has over 14,000 voters represented by one MP, while a district in the Southern Governorate has 400 voters represented by one MP. The opposition has also raised questions about the existence of general centers at which any voter regardless of district may vote (apparently a Bahraini innovation). In 2006 the opposition accused the government of using the public centers to bring in busloads of soldiers and other pro-government voters in order to defeat popular Wa’d candidates Munira Fakhro and Abdulrahman al-Nu’aimi. Regarding voter lists, they display only the name and the ID number of the voter, not the address, making it difficult for candidates to campaign door to door.
None of the issues raised by the opposition are likely to be resolved before the fall elections, although King Hamad might amend some other articles of the law, such as lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. The government is also likely to continue the policy of extending nationality to thousands of non-Bahraini Sunnis in order to sway the vote.
It is too early to predict the elections’ outcome, but it is safe to assume that many of the same players will continue to dominate, perhaps with a greater role played by businesspeople, many of whom are liberals. And the new parliament will take up many of the same issues, such as housing, unemployment, security, public properties, health, and social security. The government might ease up a bit and offer a few concessions—such as allowing fairer electoral redistricting or giving more powers to the elected lower house—in an effort to demonstrate that the democratic experiment begun in 2000 is succeeding. In addition, new issues are emerging, such as the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission to compensate those whose rights were violated before 2000 that might prove important in the next parliament.