Why the Bahrain elections matter

Earlier this month, parliamentary elections were held in Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf which hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and which is home to a restive Shia majority population ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family. The ruling family has shown a willingness to amplify the sectarian divide to ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, parliamentary elections were held in Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf which hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and which is home to a restive Shia majority population ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family. The ruling family has shown a willingness to amplify the sectarian divide to counter moves for political accountability, by polarizing the public and ramping up Sunni fears of a Shia takeover of the country.

The elections thus took place under an intensive security crackdown in which hundreds of Shia street protestors have been arrested and 25 media figures, NGO heads, and opposition activists were formally charged with forming a "sophisticated terrorist network with outside support." Still the electoral returns provide some room for optimism for those who view integration over division as the key to Bahrain's future. Two key outcomes -- one from the Shia side of the ledger and one from the Sunni side -- open up space for progress, if the Khalifa-led government chooses to act on it.

Earlier this month, parliamentary elections were held in Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf which hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and which is home to a restive Shia majority population ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family. The ruling family has shown a willingness to amplify the sectarian divide to counter moves for political accountability, by polarizing the public and ramping up Sunni fears of a Shia takeover of the country.

The elections thus took place under an intensive security crackdown in which hundreds of Shia street protestors have been arrested and 25 media figures, NGO heads, and opposition activists were formally charged with forming a "sophisticated terrorist network with outside support." Still the electoral returns provide some room for optimism for those who view integration over division as the key to Bahrain’s future. Two key outcomes — one from the Shia side of the ledger and one from the Sunni side — open up space for progress, if the Khalifa-led government chooses to act on it.

Regional political shifts have increased tensions within Bahrain, as the minority Sunni have watched with trepidation the rise of a Shia-led government in neighboring Iraq, and Iran’s growing regional ambitions. Those external pressures have been matched by internal ones, as dissatisfaction over the half reforms and broken promises that characterize the re-instatement of the parliament by the ruling al-Khalifa have mounted. More recently this took the form an investigation by Shia parliamentarians over the royal seizure of public land; their report received the backing of many Sunni members who are usually reliably pro-government.

The escalation of security moves on the eve of elections imposed difficult choices on the main Shia opposition movement, al-Wifaq. Born out of similar street protests of the "intifada" of the 1990s, al-Wifaq has matured into a broad-based communal party, led by a young cleric Ali Salman. Al-Wifaq has steered the community through the heady days of the return of exiles and the promise of a new parliamentary rebirth initiated by the young Emir Hamad. It then led them into boycott in 2002 after the pledge of an elected lower house was countered by the imposition of a royally appointed upper house whose equal weight insured that the ruling family would have the final say in all political matters. It ushered the community back into elections in 2006 on the calculation that having a voice in a compromised political system was better than no voice at all.

The security crackdown hit many arms of the opposition, but struck deepest at the "boycott" wing of the Shia community, led by rival movement al-Haq. Since splitting with al-Wifaq over its decision to enter the elections in 2006, al-Haq has followed a strategy of protest and civil disobedience which appeals to disenfranchised youth. With al-Wifaq making few gains through its engagement strategy, the appeal of the street appeared to be gaining. The government crackdown sought to raise the cost of the street strategy, linking it to the war on terror, and putting its leadership back in jail.

Al-Wifaq — whose website was shut down by the government in the midst of the campaign — responded with condemnation, but it did not pull out of the election. Their gamble paid off as the Shia community threw their support behind al-Wifaq. Participation dropped, but not significantly, and the movement was rewarded by an impressive sweep of all 18 seats it contested, all clearing the hurdle of 50 percent support in the first round of voting.

The move is indicative of al-Wifaq’s patient approach which seeks to calm the fears of the Sunni community, while pressing persistently for greater economic and political integration of the Shia. Yet there are limits to the pressure they can bring through this strategy. Their 18 seats, short of a majority in the 40 member parliament, represent the most they can win due to gerrymandered districts. And while boasting the largest delegation to the parliament, they were still unable to win the speaker position, which will remain in the hand of a Sunni independent. Clearly a broader coalition is needed to force change; but is there any hope of coalition building across the sectarian divide?

While the elections brought little change to the Shia composition of the parliament, the Sunni delegation has been significantly transformed. Since the reinstatement of parliament in 2002, Sunni Islamist political groupings — both Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood — have held sway. Their cooperation in the 2006 elections earned them 15 seats in the parliament. They were aided on the margins by the ruling al-Khalifa, who worked to defeat secular opposition candidates from the Wa’ad party, ensuring the parliament had a strongly sectarian cast.

Yet while backing the ruling al-Khalifa in most matters, the Sunni Islamists cooperated with their Shia Islamist counterparts on issues of morality, pushing legislation to curb the laissez faire social atmosphere that makes Bahrain a welcome vacation spot for libertarian Saudis. This angered the business community, which responded by fielding some well funded candidates in the current election. This challenge, plus the costly decision not to form an electoral alliance, spelled disaster for Sunni Islamists, who saw their parliamentary presence slashed from 15 to five members.

The newly elected independents, flush with the victory of 17 seats, are exploring the creation of a formal business bloc in parliament. They have also worked as a group to challenge for leadership positions, coveting the chairmanship of the Economic Committee. For the moment, their weight pits them against the almost evenly matched al-Wifaq, but their focus on economics may offer opportunities for constructive cooperation that transcends the explosive issue of sect. Still, much depends on the reaction of the ruling family.

The ruling al-Khalifa are likely pleased with the completion of elections at a time when Western human rights organizations have condemned the use of torture and warned of a return to "full blown authoritarianism" in Bahrain. Yet their ability to tame the streets depends on their ability to make progress in the political field. Al-Wifaq has proved its patience and ability to bring the Shia community to negotiations. And the turn away from direct sectarianism and towards business issues offers a more fertile field for cooperation in the critical field of the economy. The Crown Prince has already paved the way for some reforms through the 2030 economic development initiative, and has even shown some propensity to challenge corruption in land use coming from the Prime Ministers’office.

Clearly the al-Khalifa are willing to use the stick to maintain rule, but can they also use the carrot?

Kristin Smith Diwan is an Assistant Professor of Comparative and Regional Studies at the American University School of International Service.

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