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

Russia's 'V-Day' Glory Over Nazis Overshadowed by Ukraine

Critics say Soviet-style display of power, nationalism don't recognize tragic scars of warfare that still influence politics, fighting in Ukraine More

Tensions Simmer in Hong Kong in Lead Up to Vote

Many Hong Kong citizen say if the reform plan will be a step back for the pro-democracy movement if passed More

Multimedia Obama Calls for New Commitment to Help Minority Youths Succeed

President introduces My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, foundation supporting better education and job prospects 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.
Campaign Raises Money to 'Uncuff' Journalistsi
X
May 04, 2015 3:32 PM
Beginning Sunday – World Press Freedom Day – the Committee to Protect Journalists, a private U.S. group, is launching a campaign to bring attention to their plight and encourage efforts to free them. Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Campaign Raises Money to 'Uncuff' Journalists

Beginning Sunday – World Press Freedom Day – the Committee to Protect Journalists, a private U.S. group, is launching a campaign to bring attention to their plight and encourage efforts to free them. Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Volunteers Pull Together to Aid Baltimore Riot Victims

Calm has returned to Baltimore, Maryland, after authorities lifted an overnight curfew imposed almost a week ago to stem the rioting that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray - the 25-year-old black man who died of spinal injuries suffered while in police custody. Six police officers, three of them African-American, have been charged in connection with his death. Baltimore is now trying to get back to normal, in part with the help of volunteers who responded to calls to help those in the city'
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Obama Praises Work of 3 Immigrant Journalists

President Barack Obama met with three immigrant journalists at the White House Friday to praise them for their work ahead of World Press Freedom Day, May 3. In attendance: Dieu Cay (his pen name) a blogger from Vietnam recently released from prison; Lily Mengesha from Ethiopia who was harassed and detained for exposing the marrying off of young girls as child brides, and Fatima Tlisova, an ethnic Circassian from the North Caucasus region of Russia, who works for VOA's Russian Service.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Black Families Use Baltimore Case to Revisit 'Police Talk'

Following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody this month, VOA interviewed black families throughout the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore about how they discuss the case. Over and over, parents pointed to a crucial talk they say every black mother or father has with their children. Victoria Macchi has more on how this conversation is passed down through generations.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video First Surgical Glue Approved for Use Inside Body

While medical adhesives are becoming more common, none had been approved for use inside the body until now. Earlier this year, the first ever biodegradable surgical glue won that approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on the innovation and its journey from academia to market.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Study: One in Six Species Threatened with Extinction

Climate change is transforming the planet. Unless steps are taken to reduce global warming, scientists predict rising seas, stronger and more frequent storms, drought, fire and floods. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, a new study on species extinction underscores the need to take action to avoid the most catastrophic effects of rising temperatures.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Baltimore Riots Shed Light on City’s Troubled Past

National Guard troops took up positions Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, as authorities tried to restore order after rioting broke out a day earlier. It followed Monday's funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody earlier this month. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs