Ballot box fails to heal sectarian rift in Bahrain

27 September 2011

Manama hoped parliamentary elections would be an important step to healing a deepening sectarian divide in Bahrain. Instead, the future looks increasingly uncertain

Key fact

The voter turnout in the Bahrain parliamentary elections on 24 September 2011 was just 17.4 per cent

Source: MEED

One Sunni voter leaving a polling station in Bahrain’s capital Manama expressed his belief in the country’s electoral system. “Of course I have just voted,” he said. “We have to participate to strengthen democracy and Bahrain.” Not many of his countrymen agreed.

We will look back on this … period of unrest as a positive catalyst for further change

Sheikh Mohammed bin Isa al-Khalifa, Economic Development Board

Bahrain’s by-elections on 24 September were marred by clashes between protesters and security forces, and the refusal of Al-Wefaq – the main Shia opposition party – to participate in the elections. Turnout was just 17.4 per cent. Elections will be rerun in nine of the 14 constituencies that voted because no candidates managed to achieve a 50 per cent majority.

Hopes had been high that the elections would mark the starting point of government efforts to calm the situation in Bahrain and point the way forward for reconciliation and engagement by all sides in restoring peace and stability. Instead, the situation threatens to unravel further.

Political void

“We are drowning and people are still punching holes in the boat,” says Hashem Abdul Gaffar Mohammed al-Alawi, an independent candidate in the Central Governorate.

The elections will replace seats in the parliament left by Al-Wefaq members, who resigned in protest at the government’s initial handling of the protests that started on 14 February and have left about 40 people dead.

Once in place, the new parliament will be charged with transforming the results of a public consultation exercise, called the National Dialogue, into government policies. That will be followed in October by a report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), set up by the king to investigate the causes of this year’s unrest and allegations of abuse and torture by the security forces.

We are in a situation now where no one side can impose their solution to this crisis on the other

Jawad Fairooz, former Al-Wefaq MP

Although tensions have simmered in Bahrain’s Shia community for years, the reform process enacted by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in 2002 has been generally sensible in its goals. The pace of reform has had its critics, which is acknowledged by the government.

“I believe that, ultimately, we will look back on this recent period of unrest as a positive catalyst for further change that helped Bahrain emerge stronger,” says Sheikh Mohammed bin Isa al-Khalifa, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Board. “Our aim must be for this progress to be sustainable. Bahrain will move at a speed that it can withstand and that is in the interests of everyone who lives in the kingdom.”

While the government is optimistic that it can restore stability to Bahrain, neither the elections, the National Dialogue, nor the BICI report seem able to heal the rift that has deepened between the country’s Sunni and Shia population since the protests began.

Whatever the cause, the elections failed to inspire the people. There were few signs of activity at many of the polling stations, which the government blamed on the threat of intimidation by Shia groups not taking part in the ballot. “I will vote, but the rest of my family will not,” said one Shia voter. “They are worried that they may be attacked.” There were reports of voter intimidation around at least one polling station, but it seems unlikely that significant numbers of voters would be deterred by gangs of youths with stones, after facing down police shotguns in February in the name of democracy.

Most Shias still have more solidarity with the protesters than the government’s attempts to push through a settlement. In the Sanabis area, to the west of Manama and nearby Pearl Roundabout (the focal point of February’s demonstrations), a huge police presence chased protesters around the streets firing tear gas and shotgun pellets into the crowds. The day before the elections, demonstrations even took place in Manama’s City Centre mall, near a polling booth.

Legitimacy debate

The low turnout was a clear sign many still do not believe they can achieve their aims within the political system and that a wide gulf remains between both sides. Turnout at the nine run-offs could fall further.

This threatens the legitimacy of the whole process that follows. The government says that in any democracy, elected candidates are the representatives of all the people, not just those that voted for them. Opposition groups counter that the elections are only taking place now to make Manama look like its reform programme is progressing, when in reality the changes are minimal and not supported by the people.

Although the government is attempting reform, the gap between the two sides could at any point spiral out of control again, as in mid-March, before GCC troops were called in.

“There is a path to reform that sounds feasible, but at any point it could all collapse,” says one foreign diplomat in the country. “There is also more organised radical support than there used to be.”

The biggest risk is that the Shia groups in Bahrain could become increasingly radicalised the more they feel disenfranchised from the government and the current reform programme. The longer it is before there is genuine reconciliation, the more likely it becomes that tensions will spill out on to the streets again. Currently, both sides seem to be drifting further apart.

“We are in a situation now where no one side can impose their solution to this crisis on the other,” says Jawad Fairooz, a former Al-Wefaq MP. The youth movement behind this year’s unrest, along with mainstream groups such as Al-Wefaq, have boycotted the elections and criticised the National Dialogue as not going far enough in embracing reform. Chief among their demands is that Bahrain moves to become a constitutional monarchy. Al-Wefaq also wanted to see the dialogue embrace reform of the electoral districts, which they say have been gerrymandered to ensure they will always be a minority in the parliament, despite being the majority of the population.

Restoring peace

The government sees these reforms as its best hope of restoring peace and stability to Bahrain. “This is a step forward to a new era,” said Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa after the election. “When parliament returns in October, it will look into the outcomes of the National Dialogue and how to develop this country and continue the reform programme.”

But the most serious flashpoint on the horizon is set to be the BICI report, which is due to submit its findings by the end of October. The BICI is investigating whether human rights laws were violated and allegations of torture and systematic abuse by the security forces, and also allegations of violence by protesters. Any sign of leniency on the regime could spark further demonstrations. Too strong an attack on protesters and they will accuse the commission of being too close to the government.

Fairooz, along with several other Al-Wefaq members, have already submitted evidence to the BICI about allegations of torture and abuse while they were held by the authorities after this year’s unrest. “We are not confident that this report will become a major part of the reform programme in Bahrain,” says Fairooz. “You cannot deal with the human rights issues in Bahrain without dealing with the political issues and that requires major constitutional changes.”

Significant political change is unlikely. Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, is now considered the most powerful man in Bahrain, while the reform-minded Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has expended a great deal of political capital on an early attempt to engage with the opposition that got rejected.

Sheikh Khalifa is seen as a hardliner and among those responsible for calling in Saudi troops to help force the demonstrations out of Manama. He is also close to Saudi Arabia, which worries that Bahrain’s restive Shias could prove an inspiration to its own Shia population in the Eastern Province.

This policy has worked in restoring security and the functioning of the economy, but offers little hope for an enduring stability.

The division between King Hamad and the prime minister also appears to be widening. Decrees from the king that Shia workers who were sacked for their involvement in the protests should be reinstated seem to have been ignored so far. In contrast, some of the police officers suspended because of links to the use of torture have resumed duties. Increasingly, hopes that the government will embark on meaningful reform are turning to disappointment.

“We are approaching a very critical period,” says Fairooz. ‘When the BICI report is announced and the government presses ahead with its minor constitutional changes, we will start to see what the momentum is like on the streets.”

The elections and the National Dialogue look set to make only limited progress, if any, in healing the sectarian rift in Bahrain. Al-Wefaq already sees the elections as little more than a way to rubber stamp the government’s limited reform agenda. For the young protesters behind the February demonstrations, the view is more contemptuous. On the night of the elections, a group of young people gathered in Bani Jamra, a village in the north-west, to chant ‘Down with the Al-Khalifa’.

Fractious calm

The crackdown that drove protesters from central Manama into the villages, coupled with the government’s reform attempts, have restored a sense of calm to Bahrain, but it is a worryingly fractious calm. One of two scenarios now looks like playing out over the next few months. Either the Shia will become exhausted with their struggle against the government, or tensions will continue to bubble under the surface until they spill over on to the streets again.

Optimists say the path forward the government has plotted may not be perfect, but if Al-Wefaq is reengaged with the process, it may be enough to stop the situation degenerating again. The pessimistic view is that the situation in Bahrain will get worse before it gets better and further violent clashes will occur before the country gets back on track.

“The number of pessimistic conversations is definitely increasing,” the diplomat says. 

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