News / Middle East

Democratic Doubts Surround Bahrain Elections

A Bahraini man votes in parliamentary elections, 23 Oct 2010
A Bahraini man votes in parliamentary elections, 23 Oct 2010

Voting in Bahrain's parliamentary elections began on Saturday amid mounting tension between Sunni leaders and the country's Shi'ite majority. It is the Persian Gulf kingdom's third election since implementing a new constitution eight years ago, but a string of opposition arrests and a clampdown on the media have prompted fears that the monarchy is beginning to abandon its attempt at democracy and return to traditional authoritarianism.

Bahrain's Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa was one of the early voters on Saturday and after casting his ballot in front of a swarm of media, he reaffirmed his commitment to elected representation in the country.

Crackdown

His critics, however, say the Sunni Muslim-led government's recent crackdown on dissidents has undermined the entire process.

In August, 23 Shi'ite activists were arrested on charges of terrorism and planning to overthrow the government. Since then, over 200 opposition supporters have been detained, some claim they were abused or even tortured while in custody.

According to the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, the real motive behind the arrests was to prevent Shi'ites from gaining a majority in parliament. He says the action has made many Bahrainis loose faith in the election.

"For sure the impact of the crackdown and the arrests is going to have an influence on the whole situation and I think the turnout for the election is going to be much less than what was expected," said Nabeel Rajab.

Voters participation

Professor of international relations and Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, Gerd Nonneman, says it is hard to predict what the overall voter numbers will be, but he says a low Shi'ite turnout could actually be harmful for the government.

"If there is a lack of participation in the elections then all the old tensions will re-emerge for which the liberalization program has been started in the first place. Plus, where as in the past the opposition was not really sectarian, it's becoming increasingly so, partly because of government policy," said Nonneman.



'Model for emerging democracies'

For the past decade, the West has viewed Bahrain as a model for emerging democracies in the Arab world.

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa (file photo)
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa (file photo)

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa brought sweeping political reforms to the nation when he came into power in 1999. In addition to creating a new parliament, which is still more or less controlled by the king, he released all political prisoners and gave women the right to vote. The parliament only has limited policy-making powers because all bills need to be passed by the upper house whose members are appointed by the king.

Amnesty International said Bahrain's reforms represented a "historical period of human rights". The country's Shi'ite community, however, continued to claim that they were being treated as second-class citizens.

Today, Shi'ites represent over 70 percent of Bahrain's population. They say they are not given equal housing, health, or education benefits. They also say most government institutions refuse to employ them.

What's more, Shi'ite representatives accuse Sunni leaders of issuing Bahraini passports to foreign Sunnis who do not meet naturalization requirements in order to weaken the Shi'ite majority. The government has denied this.

Internal issues

Outside powers continue to keep a close eye on Bahrain's internal problems. One major concern is that Iran, which is predominantly Shi'ite, may try to exploit the situation in order to gain a foothold in the Arab peninsula.

Nonneman says Bahrain's parliamentary elections and the resulting political climate could be a determinant of this.

"The problem is that if the political system looses legitimacy, then you may well get sections of the Shi'ite less privileged population turning to supports wherever they can get it," he said. "Some have been looking towards Iran for a while and Iran's actually always been rather standoffish. Ultimately, the one thing that may draw Iran in more closely is the kind of policy that the [Bahraini] government now seems to be pursuing.

U.S. interest


Experts say the United States has a vested interest in Bahrain as the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is based there.

However, American authorities have been reluctant to comment on the nation's recent wave of unrest.

Spokesperson for London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, Saeed Shehabi, says it is time the United States became more involved.

"The United States has a duty," said Shehabi. "If it wants [to promote] its interests and a safer world, Washington must not continue supporting these absolutist rules. These are antiquated, outdated systems of government that have no place in modern times."

The Bahraini government insists its recent crackdown on "terrorists", who they say were planning a coup, was not linked to the parliamentary elections.

Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa explaining election procedures, 22 Oct 2010
Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa explaining election procedures, 22 Oct 2010

The Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Shaikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa also says that in the wake of demonstrations, small fires and even an explosion in the streets, the government had to act the way it did to protect the public.

"Many people suffered from this. Civilian population was targeted," he said. "Some civilians were really subjected to fear and the main issue is that we will not allow any party or power or group of people to use force to further any kind of agenda."

Al-Khalifa also went on to dismiss suggestions that the parliamentary elections will have a low turnout. "I don't ever believe that. I think the process is going on. Maybe some people disseminate a kind of disillusion just to attract some votes. At the end of the day, everyone is participating. All the political parties are hoping for their candidates to take a seat on the parliament," he said.

Ibrahim Sharif Al Syed, addresses his supporters in the run-up to parliamentary elections, 21 Oct 2010
Ibrahim Sharif Al Syed, addresses his supporters in the run-up to parliamentary elections, 21 Oct 2010

One of the candidates vying for a parliamentary seat is the leader of the National Democratic Action Society, Ibrahim Sharif Al Syed. Speaking at his last political rally before the elections, he urged his supporters to vote.

He later admitted that Bahrain's parliament does not have much power compared to some foreign legislatures, but he says Bahrainis should take advantage of what they have and that both government and opposition supporters should use the parliament to let their voices be heard.

"Let's just say this in not a legislative parliament, it's a parliament where we can expose things as real and basically educate people," said Syed.

Bahrain has about 318,000 registered voters out of a population of around 1.3 million.

You May Like

Conflicts Engulf Christians in Mideast

Research finds an increase in faith-based hostilities, and Christians are facing persecution in a growing number of countries in the region More

Chinese Americans: Don’t Call Us 'Model Minority'

Label points to collective achievement, but some say it triggers resentment, unrealistic expectations More

Iran Bolsters Phone, Internet Surveillance

Does increased monitoring suggest the government is nervous? More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Polish Ghetto

When the Nazi army moved into the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid