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Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Bahrain: Elections go to runoffs

Despite calls for a boycott, Bahraini authorities announced strong voter participation, though the majority of parliamentary seats and council districts were left undecided in the first round

Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 28 Nov 2018
Bahraini voters
Bahraini voters cast their ballot at a polling station in the Bahraini city of Al-Muharraq, north of Manama on November 24, 2018 (Photo: AFP)
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Bahraini authorities announced the results of last week’s parliamentary and local council elections, despite calls by the opposition to boycott and government insistence there was high voter turnout.

Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, Religious Endowments and Chairman of the National Elections Committee (NEC) Khaled bin Ali Al-Khalifa announced the election results on Monday, the fifth round of elections since constitutional reform in 2002.

Al-Khalifa told a news conference that voter turnout reached 70 per cent, which is close to local and international media reports quoting Bahraini officials indicating 67 per cent turnout.

This is higher than previous elections reported by pro-Manama Arab newspapers of a little more than 50 per cent, after Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society called for an election boycott. Nonetheless, voter participation is less than the first elections after the 2002 reforms, and 2006 and 2010 elections.

Al-Khalifa said only nine parliamentary districts were decided in the first round, which means there will be runoffs in 31 districts next week. Only five local council seats were decided, while 25 others will be in runoffs.

According to NEC figures, there were 506 candidates including 137 running for local council seats, with an “unprecedented” 41 female candidates. The government expects higher participation compared to 2014’s 53 per cent with an opposition boycott.

Some 365,000 registered voters could vote at 56 polling stations to elect 40 members of parliament, a legislative body with limited powers, while the king appoints 40 members to the Shura Council.

Important legislation is passed in a joint session of both chambers which means it is difficult for the opposition to take control of the legislative process.

The most seats held by the opposition was in 2006 after Al-Wefaq, representing the Shia opposition, won 20 parliamentary seats, along with a few other members. This means the opposition bloc never made up one third of the two chambers combined.

According to reports by the BBC and Reuters, the majority of the population are Shias (Twelvers), while the Royal Family is Sunni. Bahrain dabbled early in parliamentary life after independence from Britain in the 1970s, but the late prince Eissa bin Salman Al-Khalifa dissolved parliament in the mid-1970s after which there was no legislative body. In the mid-1990s, this small Gulf island was rocked by protests which resulted in the government and opposition sitting together and drafting a new constitution in 2002.

Since then, all parliamentary sessions finished their terms and incumbent King Hamad bin Eissa did not dissolve parliament, even after the events at Pearl Roundabout during the Arab Spring revolutions. Bahraini protests did not stop in 2011 and intermittently flare up, but the king never dissolved parliament.

The government often accuses the opposition of having overseas backing, either Iran since the Islamic Revolution which overthrew Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi in 1979, or more recently Qatar after the quartet boycott of Doha which includes Bahrain.

Manama accuses Tehran of fanning strife and tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Bahrain, and called on voters to cast their ballots to defeat “the Iranian plot”. Bahrain said in October that several candidates were threatened on social media by Iran to drop out of the elections.

Ali Salman, the leader of Al-Wefaq, was found guilty of spying for Qatar and Sheikh Eissa Qassem, the group’s godfather, was stripped of his Bahraini citizenship.

Al-Wefaq and the leftist National Democratic Action Society (Waad) called for an election boycott after they were both dissolved by the government. Earlier, Minister of Interior Rashed bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa urged citizens to ignore rumours and only listen to news from “trusted sources”.

The ministry tweeted: “Text messages telling you your name is deleted and not to go vote are false.”

Journalists and opinion writers described calls for boycott as “historic betrayal of the responsibility we are shouldering because a boycott will give the corrupt an opportunity to take control of the political scene in our country and in our region,” according to Youssef Hamed, a writer in Al-Watan newspaper.

Said Al-Hamad wrote in Al-Ayam newspaper: “I will not boycott and I will never side with those who revolted against Bahrain and hijacked the capital while waiting for the foreigners.”

Boycotters say the government is the one that resorted to foreigners to suppress demands for creating a “constitutional monarchy”, in reference to Saudi Arabia.

In the late 1960s, Bahrainis voted for an Arab and independent Bahrain when Iran wanted to annex the island, which defeated Tehran’s plan.

Today, parliament is a cornerstone that cannot be denied Bahrainis no matter the number of seats held by the opposition or loyalists. It is equally divided among Shia and Sunni districts, even in the view of candidates in the runoffs.

Many in the local media believe that no matter the limits on parliamentary powers, they are perpetually increasing at every political crossroads. That is important.

Omar Al-Hassan, director of the Gulf Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, praised the elections, describing them as “the most honest in the region”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Bahrain: Elections go to runoffs

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