News / Middle East

Persian Gulf Elections Offer Glimmer of Democracy

Supporters of the Shiite opposition Al-Wefaq society wave red-and-white Bahraini flags and a Yemeni flag during a rally in Tubli, Bahrain, near the capital of Manama, September 22, 2011.
Supporters of the Shiite opposition Al-Wefaq society wave red-and-white Bahraini flags and a Yemeni flag during a rally in Tubli, Bahrain, near the capital of Manama, September 22, 2011.

Election season is in full swing in a part of the world with muted democracies - the autocratic Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are holding elections on Saturday, selected Saudis will go to the polls next Thursday and citizens in Oman will cast their ballots next month.

Arab Spring and elections

The elections are the first in the region since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. In general, civil unrest, or the threat of it, has prompted mild electoral reform in only a few Persian Gulf nations. And in no way do the changes loosen the monarchs’ grip on power.

That is why analysts like Toby Jones, assistant professor of Middle East History at Rutgers University, say the election process is disguised as progress and is aimed more at reinforcing the status quo.

“They are demonstrations on the part of regimes that they understand that there is domestic pressure for political change, but they’re not even half measures, they’re quarter measures and I don’t think anyone takes them very seriously,” said Jones.

Awakening

In no place has the struggle for regional awakening been more visible than in Bahrain. For the past seven months, pro-democracy demonstrators have been calling for the introduction of a constitutional monarchy in the tiny kingdom.

Saturday’s elections will fill 18 seats abandoned by members of the main opposition al-Wefaq party, who quit parliament in February over the government’s bloody crackdown on protesters. Four seats are uncontested. Al-Wefaq and other opposition groups are boycotting the vote.

Mattar Mattar, one of the legislators who resigned, says the decision to replace the parliamentarians is inciting many Bahrainis to take to the streets and protest.

“Of course there is no legitimacy for this parliament because we were representing all seats for the opposition," said Mattar. "So currently the opposition is not represented at all.”

Bahrain

In March, Bahrain’s Gulf neighbors sent military backup to the country to help quell the democratic uprising there and prevent the unrest from spilling over to their shores.

Bahrain’s leaders said the extra troops were needed to reinstate stability. Mattar says the move was unnecessary.

“We don’t think that democracy represents an obstacle and a threat for other GCC countries," said Mattar. "We are trying to send those messages.”

In the region, there are signs by rulers offering some electoral concessions that those messages are having some impact.

United Arab Emirates

In Oman, legislative powers were given to parliament for the first time this year following widespread protests. The largest electoral changes, however, have been offered in the family-ruled United Arab Emirates.

The number of Emiratis allowed to vote in the second-ever Federal National Council elections has increased nearly 20-fold from the first poll in 2006. However, the roughly 129,000 voters were hand picked by the government and only represent about 12 percent of the local population.

And only half of the 40-member FNC is elected. The leaders of the seven emirates that make up the country chose the other half. Ultimately, the body has no lasting law-making power. Like all legislatures in the Gulf, ultimate control rests with the ruling monarchs.

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, leaders decided to hold municipal council elections this month after a two-year delay. Many experts say it is likely that the postponement would have dragged on even longer if it were not for the opposition uprisings in neighboring countries.

Saudi candidates will be vying for approximately 1,630 seats on 258 municipal councils. According to the law, only men are allowed to vote and run for office and, as in the UAE, only half of the council seats are elected by the people.

Some analysts see hope that the elections, while restrictive, are at least a needed first boost.

Staci Haag, Gulf regional director for the National Democratic Institute, says the Saudi vote, like other regional polls, is an important stepping-stone to greater democracy.

“The elections are going to be for positions that don’t necessarily hold a lot of power, but once they have the base of public support, a lot of councilors have tended to use that to try and advocate for more power and more say, which moves the ball forward a little bit every time,” said Haag.

Democracy

Haag says that the transition to democracy is likely to move at a much slower pace in the Gulf than in other areas of the Middle East, but adds that historically, once a nation is given a taste of political participation there is usually no going back.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to take and I don’t know what form it’s going to take, but I do think that there is an awakening, especially on the part of young people and on the part of women,” said Haag.

For their part, Gulf leaders say they are committed to democratic reform but insist it must be introduced gradually so as not to destroy the fabric of society after generations of absolute rule.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs