Restarting the political reform process in Bahrain

26 October 2010

Bahrain will need to push ahead with political reform if it is to hit the lofty goals outlined in Vision 2030. The political grandstanding seen in the past must be avoided

The parliamentary elections for Bahrain’s lower house took place on 23 October, drawing to an end a spiral of demonstrations, violence and arrests.

The result was one extra seat for Al-Wefaq, the opposition party for Shia voters disgruntled with the Sunni-led government, bringing their number up to 18 out of 40 seats.

Local officials paint the election as a success. They say it demonstrates Bahrain is a regional leader in terms of democratic reform, with a relatively peaceful election process and the gains made by the Shia opposition a clear illustration of the freedom granted to the voters.

All this is true, but the elections also show that further progress is necessary before Bahrain can legitimately claim to be giving its people a voice through the democratic process. The majority Shia population may now have more representatives in parliament, but they will still find that the Sunni ruling family, and Sunni dominated Upper House, remain in charge.

For now, the impetus to push the democratic reform process, started by King Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa 10 years ago, has waned. Of more importance to Western allies than pushing further reform is countering the influence of Iran.

The reform process will need to be revived though if Bahrain is to achieve the ambitious aims of Vision 2030 – a lofty set of goals that expands beyond the purely economic into more social aspects, such as fairness, social mobility and sustainability.

Those goals will be unachievable while a large part of the population complains about being systemically victimised – missing out on education, employment and housing.

The opposition must avoid the kind of political grandstanding seen in Bahraini politics in the past, and instead engage with the political system using the limited power they have. In the short-term, both sides will be preoccupied dealing with activists arrested before the election. But unless a longer-term agenda is set out, the Vision 2030 goals will remain unachieved.

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