Bahrain’s opposition is boycotting the upcoming parliamentary elections on November 22, reasoning that the state’s power structures, including the parliament and the electoral process, are at the core of the country’s long-running political disputes. For decades, opposition movements have sought to place checks on the power of the monarchy and obtain more power for elected representatives. For its part, the government has hoped that by offering a space in which elected representatives can influence legislation, it would be able to contain demands for more radical political change. But the current parliamentary set-up lacks credibility with a large proportion—likely the majority—of the population. The upcoming elections are therefore likely to prompt more opposition protests, rather than provide a means of channeling and containing opposition activity.
The last time Bahrain faced an uprising, in the 1990s, a large-scale protest movement called on the ruler to reinstate the country’s short-lived post-independence parliament, which was established in 1973 and abolished two years later. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa changed the constitution in 2002 to ensure that when the parliament was reinstated, the powers of elected MPs would be offset by an equal number of deputies that he appointed directly. In addition, gerrymandering and the regime’s unofficial support for some of the nominally independent candidates have ensured a pro-government majority among elected members too. Two decades later—with a parliament less powerful than that of 1973 and amid escalating tensions—the opposition sees participating in the upcoming parliamentary elections as a major concession, one they judged was not worth making without equivalent concessions from the government.
Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main opposition movement, and several other opposition groups have already tried boycotting the parliament, in 2002, and have also tried participating in it, in 2006 and 2010. But neither approach has brought about major political change, compared with the more dramatic effects of the political succession in 1999 or the mass uprising in 2011. The country’s various opposition groups are seeking something else that could once again change the game and break the political impasse, whether this is a negotiated transition (potentially empowering the country’s crown prince and weakening the more conservative power holders in the royal family), a decisive change to international policy toward Bahrain, or a fresh internal revolutionary upsurge.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his supporters have been urging the opposition instead to play by the existing rules of the game. They argue that the parliament is the legitimate body to negotiate with the government on political reforms, and that it will be possible to expand its powers from within gradually over time. For instance, in May 2013, the constitution was amended to allow the parliament to hold a vote of no-confidence in the cabinet (though they still cannot withdraw confidence in the prime minister or question him).
However, the opposition contends that these changes are all but meaningless, and that the system is designed to be impossible to change from within. Indeed, the political system is constructed to ensure the dominance of the executive branch of government. The king appoints all the ministers, drawing most of the important ones from his own family, appoints the upper house of parliament (whose 40 members have equal weight to the 40 elected MPs), and appoints the country’s judges. It is unlikely the king would gradually take away his own power.
In the first half of 2014 the crown prince held meetings with all of Bahrain’s political societies, opposition and pro-government, to discuss their demands for reform. But the mismatch of expectations was too great. In September the crown prince announced a “framework for dialogue” setting out five areas of broad reform to be discussed by the next parliament. The crown prince’s supporters argue this represented a written assurance that changes would happen. But al-Wefaq wanted something more certain than a royal promise to show their constituents. In particular they wanted an assurance that the elected house of parliament would be able to pass legislation without it being vetoed by appointed MPs. Meanwhile the crown prince and his supporters think they have already made generous reforms, especially compared with neighboring Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar.
Other factors also sapped the opposition’s confidence in reforms. In October, the justice ministry sought to ban al-Wefaq on technical issues before backtracking on the decision, possibly reflecting international pressure. And although al-Wefaq has continued to participate in municipal councils even after walking out of parliament in 2011, this summer the municipal council in Manama, which was largely made up of al-Wefaq members, was dissolved by the (now opposition-free) parliament after the authorities decided it was spending too much time on “politics.” Also, since resigning from parliament in 2011, some of the group’s former MPs have been arrested and imprisoned, and two lost their citizenship.
Al-Wefaq now hopes that international pressure will force the government to pursue more far-reaching reforms. Along with other Bahraini opposition groups and NGOs, the party carries out extensive lobbying in Washington, London (where three of its former MPs are exiled), Brussels and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The United States and United Kingdom are seen as especially important because of their traditional role as guarantors of Bahrain’s security. But Western policymakers are disappointed al-Wefaq did not join the elections, which they say would at least have given the group tools and protections, such as parliamentary immunity and routine access to foreign diplomats, that it could use in its wider campaign for political change. By contrast, in July, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski was expelled from Bahrain after meeting with al-Wefaq and other opposition groups.
However, al-Wefaq has paid more heed to its domestic constituency, which is likely to remain a source of unrest. It represents a large part of the country’s Shia majority. Its supporters come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, including the minority of wealthy Shia, but are disproportionately likely to face unemployment, discrimination, or reside in areas with poor infrastructure. Their distrust of the government is rooted in a history of discrimination and a sense of victimhood that predates the 2011 uprising, but has been exacerbated by the ensuing crackdown, which disproportionately targeted Shia Bahrainis for arrest, imprisonment, torture, and job losses. An extensive state-sponsored propaganda campaign against the uprising sought to portray the Shia members of the opposition as treacherous Iranian agents, which compounded the sense among many Bahraini Shia that the government automatically assumes they are disloyal because of their religious identity.
This festering political dispute is having a radicalizing effect. Al-Wefaq, a moderate Islamist movement, seeks a greater share of power under a constitutional monarchy. However, it has faced competition since 2011 from more ambitious opposition movements that have been calling for the overthrow of the monarchy. These include the February 14 Youth Coalition (formed after the 2011 uprising), Haq and Wafa (both of which include former Wefaqis who left the group when it first entered elections in 2006), and the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, as well as more fragmented and localized groups of young men who routinely protest in the Shia villages. One of the main reasons al-Wefaq is boycotting the elections is to preserve a basic degree of unity within the opposition, fearing it would lose support and draw direct antagonism from other groups if it entered the controversial parliament with little or nothing immediate from the government to show for it. Over the past decade the main source of division within the opposition has been whether to cooperate with or confront the authorities. With al-Wefaq and other opposition groups boycotting elections, a more confrontational approach now looks likely to dominate.
Jane Kinninmont is a senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.