Elections in the Gulf 1/2: Bahrain

Two elections are taking place in the Gulf — in Bahrain and in the United Arab Emirates — on Saturday. The political environments could not be more different, but the results of both elections are not expected to change much. First, let's look at the dynamics in Bahrain. Tomorrow, a second part of this post will look at the UAE.

In Bahrain the election was called to replace the 18 seats formerly held by the main Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq, which resigned earlier this year protesting the government’s crackdown. Al Wefaq and five other opposition groups are boycotting the vote. Several candidates have already won unopposed. Al Wefaq said it was powerless against the government and since the group has walked out of parliament, the government has not conceded anything, they say. How could they return under such conditions?

“We were not able to help the people when the crackdown started,” according to Matar Ebrahim Matar, a former Al Wefaq MP, who himself was arrested, held and beaten in detention — an accusation the government denies. “The government doesn’t listen to anybody so even if we are inside (the parliament), the government are ignoring all those who are speaking about violations, people who are fired from their jobs, tortured inside the jail and the patients who cannot reach medical services,” he said. “The denial will not stop the issues.”

So much has happened in the Gulf kingdom since February when the unrest began. More than three dozen people are dead, roughly 5,000 were injured and 3,000 lost their jobs. As a percentage of the population (there are roughly 620,000 Bahrainis and 650,000 expatriates) the losses are enormous.

A “National Dialogue” was launched in the summer to discuss reforms without preconditions. Al Wefaq stopped participating in the talks saying the dialogue did not address the roots of the problem and was not credible.

Since then mass rallies are held every week by Al Wefaq. Other anti-government groups are also holding weekly events. Nightly clashes in the Shiite areas continue, with deaths occurring every few weeks. The population remains dissatisfied and no meaningful doors are open for dialogue. Calls for civil disobedience have begun as organizers asked anti-government demonstrators to use their cars to block roads and bring the capital to a standstill on Wednesday. This week, the government tried to show it was sympathetic and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a royal decree establishing a compensation fund for the victims of the violence.

There is no going back to the way things were. An opposition observer, who cannot be named for security reasons, told me:

If Al Wefaq enters into parliament the entire load of the pain will come on their shoulders. All the Shiite people… will blame them or say okay now you’re representatives you have to extract our rights, you have to do something for us, which they cannot. The system is tightly governed that you cannot even question the most junior minister — that is like an impossibility.”

Voter turnout is expected to be low with one analyst estimating 15 percent. In contrast to the 2010 election when Al Wefaq ran and turnout was high - in part because a media campaign against Al Wefaq backfired and the group won additional anti-government support. In 2010, “we were trying at that time to send a positive message that we are willing to take steps to contribute in whatever the government is doing,” Matar, the Al Wefaq MP, said. “But the government didn’t allow even very small changes in the constitution.”

Not everyone sees it that way. This is what Jamal Fakhro, the First Deputy Chairman of the Shura Council, argues:

The opposition they have their own understanding of negotiation of dialogue or discussions. They have been offered everything. They have been given their right to stand for the election. The voters have supported them, have given them their 18 seats out of the 40. And still they believe they are not very well represented… The opposition are saying ‘either you do it in accordance to whatever I want or I will start to work on the general public to bring upset to the community and unrest to Bahrain’… They are not able, unfortunately, to sit across a table and discuss and have a proper dialogue or place their thoughts at the parliament and fight for them.

The result of the election is known before voting begins, as the opposition is out. A more important date to watch will be at the end of October, when an independent commission, set up by the king, will issue its report on the events that unfolded in Bahrain. The king has said “the Commission is free to make any recommendations.”

The burden will then be on the government to implement them.