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Electoral rules (and threats) cure Bahrain's sectarian parliament

- December 1, 2014

A Bahraini man votes in Manama Saturday, Nov. 29 for the parliamentary election runoff. (Hasan Jamali/AP Photo)
On Nov. 29, Bahrain concluded its first full legislative election since the Persian Gulf kingdom’s popular uprising began in February 2011. The main controversy both before and after the vote has turned on the question of participation by the main opposition Shiite bloc al-Wefaq, whose 18 members of parliament resigned en masse from the 40-seat lower house in the early days of the uprising over the state’s deadly response to mass demonstrations. The group has remained on the political sidelines ever since, helping to organize a continuing if steadily weakening protest movement.
In the end, al-Wefaq opted to continue its electoral boycott, having secured no meaningful political concessions to offer its increasingly disillusioned constituents as justification for rejoining what remains in any case a largely impotent parliament. Thus loath to return to the status quo ante after nearly four years of bitter struggle, al-Wefaq’s decision to abstain from the 2014 vote was made difficult only by concerted governmental (as well as Western diplomatic) pressure, including the threat of wholesale dissolution stemming from an ongoing court case brought by the Minister of Justice Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa.
The boycott, which was joined by three other opposition societies, left the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy scrambling to legitimize a process in which much of its majority-Shiite citizenry was unlikely to participate. The primary point of contention in post-electoral debate has been voter turnout. The government claims a full majority of registered Bahrainis, 51.5 percent, took part in the first round, while al-Wefaq puts the figure at no higher than 30 percent, claiming moreover that “80 percent of the voters were military and government personnel in the security and public sector.”
Lost in this debate, however, have been the actual results of the voting. Particularly noteworthy is that, al-Wefaq aside, Bahrainis elected only four candidates from any political society whatsoever, the other 36 incoming MPs being nominal “independents” more or less close to the government. The vote was therefore disastrous for Bahrain’s Sunni parties, including the most established societies al-Manbar al-Islami and al-Asalah, which represent Islamists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism, respectively. The former earned just a single seat, the latter two.
Even more striking, not one of the 10 candidates fielded by the so-called “Al-Fatih Coalition,” a list representing populist Sunni groups that gained influence following their mass pro-government mobilization in February 2011 that helped arrest the momentum of the uprising, won a single seat; indeed, only three made it to a second round run-off. Thus, less than four years after drawing a claimed 350,000 Bahrainis to the streets in support of the state, grassroots movements such as the once-formidable Gathering of National Unity (TGONU) could motivate decidedly few to the polls. The Sunni populism so on display in early 2011, and to a lesser extent since, has utterly failed to become an institutionalized player in Bahraini politics.
The obvious question, then, is what happened?
Many would point to widespread dissatisfaction with prevailing political societies, and see in the results a repudiation of Bahrain’s traditional sectarian-based politics, whether of the Shiite or Sunni variety. Evidence is cited that several candidates known to be associated with political societies competed instead as independents. And, certainly, some sense of this liability of and frustration with extant Sunni societies was on display even in the Al-Fatih mobilization of 2011, which largely sidestepped these groups as loci of political coordination.
Yet the former observation – individuals closely associated with political societies contesting as nominal independents – is not unique to this election. Notorious Salafi firebrand Jassim al-Saeedi won three terms as a nominal “independent,” for instance, while in reality belonging to al-Asalah; the same is true of former MP Isa Abu al-Fath. It is therefore unclear whether the 2014 election represents a qualitative difference in this respect. More importantly, though, inasmuch as the entire raison d’être of the TGONU was precisely to offer a more populist alternative to Bahrain’s traditional Sunni societies, its pitiful electoral performance appears even more curious rather than less.
Thus, while sheer frustration with Bahrain’s extended political malaise doubtless played a role, there are at least three other direct contributors to Bahrain’s new, near party-less parliament.
1. General polling stations
In spite of opposition calls to end the use of “general” polling stations – stations not tied geographically to a specific constituency, instead containing ballot boxes for all 40 districts – in the 2014 election their deployment reached a new high at 13 stations, compared to just 5 in 2010. Their far-flung locations (including, for example, on the causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, at the country’s Formula One circuit, and in the desolate and nearly unpopulated coastal village of al-Jaw adjacent to security installations) make effective vote monitoring impossible.
Opposition activists accuse the government of using such isolated stations to mask electoral manipulations, including the busing of military and police personnel to voting stations, and similar transport of dual-nationals residing in Saudi Arabia who are said to have received Bahraini citizenship in return for their votes. Moreover, since each station contains ballot boxes for all 40 constituencies, there is the potential for votes to be directed strategically by the state toward particularly contentious or sensitive races.
2. New electoral districts
Just two months prior to the election in late September, Bahrain announced sweeping changes to its electoral districts aimed, according to the justice minister, at making them “more equal in size.” For al-Wefaq, this surprise unilateral move, which the group quickly concluded neither aided nor harmed its electoral prospects, helped crystalize its eventual decision to boycott, which it announced just days later. But whereas the redistricting had no substantive impact on al-Wefaq, the same was not true of Sunni societies, which appeared the clear target of the changes.
The new constituencies severely hindered the chances of Sunni Islamist and populist candidates in favor of tribal independents. Districts in the Sunni-dominated south were substantially expanded to include new neighborhoods belonging formerly to a now-dissolved Central Governorate, disadvantaging candidates with localized bases of support in and around the Sunni-dominated al-Riffa. The districts of several current Islamist MPs, including that of Saeedi, were even combined to force direct electoral face-offs among sitting Sunni legislators. Finally, while the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Muharraq was spared redistricting, it was, on the other hand, the only governorate not to gain seats with the changes.
The state’s obvious purpose, admitted even by loyalist groups supportive of the crown prince-backed electoral reforms, is to preserve al-Wefaq’s parliamentary minority while also averting the emergence of a populist, non-sectarian Sunni bloc along the lines of the TGONU. Having served its purpose of arresting the momentum of opposition demonstrations in 2011, Sunni nationalism is not a phenomenon the Bahraini state is eager to see linger in the imagination of citizens, much less become institutionalized in the form of organized political societies in the first full elections since the uprising. Sunnis working together temporarily to block a Shiite-led coup attempt is one thing – indeed, an act of loyalty to the ruling family – but Sunnis engaged in a sustained fight to secure a parliamentary majority over reliably pro-government tribal independents is a far more dubious project not to be taken passively by the state.
3. Threat-induced voter turnout
Finally, perhaps the most direct contributor to Bahrain’s new-look parliament is the state’s not-so-veiled threats to citizens who might otherwise have abstained from voting. Two days before the crucial first round, electoral officials announced that the cabinet “is studying procedures and administrative measures against those who miss out intentionally on the elections.” As the government-affiliated Gulf Daily News then reported, “High Elections Committee chief executive and Legislation and Legal Opinion Commission president Abdulla Al Buainain told the Press … [that] options included preventing those who don’t take part in the election from getting a job in government.” Earlier rumors, publicly contradicted by the justice minister, suggested that citizens who do not take part would be barred from future elections.
Now, for Bahrainis oriented toward the opposition who generally have no real expectation of landing a government job in any case, such a threat may have little effect on their calculation whether to vote. But the case is obviously very different for a considerable segment of the nominally pro-government but largely apolitical Sunni community. For instance, one Bahraini with whom I spoke recently said that her sister was not even registered to vote but, spurred by what might happen if she did not, went to the voting center with her passport to ensure that she would have a stamp as proof of participation, in the event she should ever need it to secure a job or other public services.
So, if a large number of Bahraini Sunnis are mobilized to participate in the elections who otherwise would not, these individuals are unlikely to be inclined toward formal political societies insofar as they are motivated to vote not for their support of individual candidates or groups, but only by the threat of repercussions.
Hence, it is reasonable to think that the votes cast by this cadre of usual Sunni non-voters went disproportionately to independent figures, just as these Sunni voters are themselves “independents” in the sense of their typical abstention from electoral participation. Such individuals may care little which candidates they choose, or indeed have little knowledge of electoral platforms to begin with, intent only on the act of participation itself. In short, when a whole new segment of Sunni society is compelled to vote, a segment made all the more influential by the opposition boycott, then it is little wonder that the outcome should also look very different.
The question that remains, therefore, is whether Sunni societies will accept their electoral beating quietly, or cry foul at government tactics traditionally reserved for use against the opposition. It is one thing for the state to use electoral rules and incentives to limit the influence of al-Wefaq (and entirely disenfranchise smaller Shiite and secular societies), but their deployment against the state’s historical legislative support base breaks new ground. Mere involvement in a formal political society seems now to be cause for suspicion.
More generally, with the boycott of al-Wefaq and other formal opposition groups, the limited parliamentary representation of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi contingents. and the total marginalization of the Al-Fatih Coalition, each of Bahrain’s formalized political blocs is, ironically, largely stuck outside the formal institutions of politics. With political societies on the outside looking in, will Bahrain continue down its awkward dual political track of parliamentary politics on the one hand, and on the other the crown prince-backed “National Dialogue,” a framework for negotiations between the government and established political groupings, including al-Wefaq? Or will the latter process, now at a two-year-long impasse, finally be abandoned?
Whatever the case, when the Bahraini parliament has as many female MPs as parliamentarians from Islamist political societies, it’s clear that politics as usual has gone out the window.
Justin Gengler is a senior researcher at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) of Qatar University. He is the author of the upcoming book “Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State” (Indiana University Press, May 2015).