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

Jihadist Assassin says Goal of Tunisia Murders Was Chaos

Abu Muqatil at-Tunusi’s remarks in a propaganda interview also cast light on attack on Bardo Museum More

Russia Denies License to Tatar-Language TV Station in Crimea

OSCE official says denial shows 'politically selective censorship of free and independent voices in Crimea is continuing' More

Kenyan Startups Tackle Expensive Remittances Through Bitcoin

Some think services could give Western Union a run for its money, though others say it’s still got a long way to go 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.
For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leadersi
X
Aru Pande
April 01, 2015 9:09 PM
The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leaders

The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Buhari: Nigeria Has ‘Embraced Democracy’

Nigeria woke up to a new president-elect Wednesday, Muhammadu Buhari. But people say democracy is the real winner as the country embarks on its first peaceful handover of power since the end of military rule in 1999. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Abuja.
Video

Video Tiny Camera Sees Inside Blood Vessels

Ahead of any surgical procedure, doctors try to learn as much as possible about the state of the organs they plan to operate on. A new camera developed in the Netherlands can now make that easier - giving surgeons an incredibly detailed look inside blood vessels, all the way to the patient’s heart. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Latin American Groups Seek Fans at Texas Music Festival

Latin American music groups played all over Austin, Texas, during the recent South by Southwest festival, and some made fans out of locals as well as people from around the world who had come to hear music. Such exposure can boost such groups' image back home. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Stockton Community, Police, Work to Improve Relations

Relations are tense between minority communities and police departments around the United States following police shootings that have generated widely-publicized protests. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Stockton, California, where police and community groups are working toward solutions, with backing from Washington.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More