Bahrain's king promised Sunday that the strife-wracked Gulf nation would move ahead with political reforms to widen the powers of the elected parliament to oversee governments selected by the ruling monarchy.
The reforms are part of recommendations that emerged last year from talks between various political and civil groups on easing tensions in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, which has faced more than 11 months of protests by the island's Shiite majority.
More than 35 people have died in the unrest, which began as an Arab Spring-inspired uprising for greater rights, but has now shifted into a challenge against the authority of the 200-year-old ruling Sunni dynasty. Bahrain's leaders and Gulf Arab allies claim that Shiite power Iran has encouraged the violence in the strategic nation, which is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet.
In a nationally televised address, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said he would soon issue royal decrees to amend the constitution and grant a greater role to the 40-seat lower house of parliament.
The measures include allowing lawmakers to approve governments proposed by the ruling dynasty and giving greater authority to question and remove Cabinet officials. Parliament would also play a larger role in setting the state budget and proposing laws, he said.
But the changes are unlikely to appease Shia opposition groups. Bahrain's main Shia groups have withdrawn from parliament and boycotted the professed national dialogue reform talks last summer.
Shias account for about 70 per cent of Bahrain's 525,000 citizens, but complain they are effectively excluded from key political and security roles. They have called for a government that reflects election results — which would bring Shiites into key Cabinet posts — rather than ministers hand-picked by the monarchy.
Abdul Jalil Khalil, a former parliament member with the main Shiite political group Al Wefaq, dismissed the reforms as "out of touch with reality" after nearly a year of nonstop unrest and protests. Last year, Wefaq's 18 lawmakers resigned from parliament in protest.
"The king lives in another world," said Khalil. "Things have changed. The people want an elected government.”
The changes outlined by the king also limit some royal authority.
He would have to issue more explanations on the selection process for the Shura Council, the 40-member upper house of parliament that is appointed by the king. The king also would need wider discussions with political and judicial leaders before any decision to dissolve the elected parliament and call new elections.