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

Israelis Quietly Expand Enclave in Palestinian District of Jerusalem

Estimated 500 settlers, armed or protected by paramilitary police, live in Silwan among 50,000 Palestinians More

Video US, Iran Face Similar Challenges in Syrian Fight Against IS

Both Washington, Tehran back fighters battling Islamic State militants in Iraq -- but in Syria they support opposing sides in country’s civil war More

China Boosts Efforts to Help Afghan, Regional Stability

Observers say China’s increased regional involvement are due to concerns that Afghan instability and the presence of anti-China militants in Pakistani border areas could fuel Xinjiang troubles 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.
China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Lawi
X
William Ide
October 20, 2014 10:23 AM
China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Nigeria Agrees to Cease-Fire With Boko Haram

Islamist militant group Boko Haram and the Nigerian government have agreed to a cease-fire. The Nigerian government issued an order Friday, telling all military chiefs "to comply with the cease-fire agreement in all theaters of operations. Why now and the significance of the agreement are questions on some people’s minds. VOA's Mariama Diallo reports.
Video

Video Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

The offensive by Islamic State militants against the northern Syrian city of Kobani has caused hundreds of thousands of residents to flee to Turkey. They receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from the town of Suruc a few kilometers from the border.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.

All About America

AppleAndroid