Middle East

Middle East/North Africa

Bahrain: Parliament's Rebirth

A conservative Bahraini woman votes for the first time.
Riffa, Bahrain, Oct. 24, 2002: A conservative Bahraini woman casts her vote. Bahraini voters went to the polls for the first legislative elections since the dissolution of an elected parliament in 1975 (Photo: AFP).

Intense anticipation surrounded the final round of parliamentary elections in November in this island monarchy of 640,000. Not only were they the first elections since the current king’s father dissolved Parliament in 1975: The polling was unparalleled among Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

Elections for the 40-seat Chamber of Deputies included widespread enfranchisement, with a total of 243,000 eligible voters, including women. Open candidacy allowed opposition member, Islamists, and women to run.

Excitement about the elections stemmed in part from its uniqueness in the Gulf region, Sawsan al-Sha’ir explained in Al-Ayam (Nov. 2): “It is a percentage much greater than…the Kuwait electorate, which is 17 percent of the population, or the Omani, which is no more than 3 percent, [being] the two other Gulf states which have adopted parliamentary representation….Yet in Kuwait, women have been deprived of this right [voting] and in Oman it is restricted to only 19 percent of the eligible women.”

The winning candidates included Islamists, as well as secular nationalists, who now form the majority. Twelve winners are Shiite. All of the female candidates lost, although two held on until the second round. Because of the symbolic importance of the women’s candidacy, even the minister of information publicly expressed disappointment in an interview with Al-Ayam (Nov. 1). While numerous Bahraini writers lamented their loss, Shamlan al-Isa reminded readers in the Kuwaiti political daily Al-Siyasa (Oct. 31) that many women chose Islamists instead of women candidates. As Al-Sha’ir concluded, “This is one of the paradoxes of Arab democracy…in a world where there is much poverty…the membership of some imams in charities was the equivalent of a flying carpet that sailed them with ease into Parliament!”

Four major Shiite groups called for a boycott, although it had little effect on Shiite participation. Since the number of Shiite citizens is reportedly as high as 65 percent, while the ruling Al-Khalifah family is Sunni, representation has always been a bone of contention—something the elections were meant to rectify. Critical of the boycott, Ibrahim al-Shaykh wrote in Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Oct. 24) that these groups were rejecting the very process for which they had lobbied.

Bahrain’s new Parliament, however, is not truly representational. While the Chamber of Deputies is elected, there is also an appointed Upper House that is essentially a prop for the monarchy—similar to the constitutional monarchy in Jordan, a state lauded for its recent democratization efforts and open elections, whose bicameral Parliament has a rubber-stamp reputation. If the Bahraini system was consciously modeled after Jordan, as suggested by Shamlan al-Isa and corroborated in an interview in Jordan’s Al-Ra’i (Nov. 4) with the Jordanian ambassador to Bahrain, this may explain the Al-Khalifah family’s intent.