The end of the beginning as Bahrain goes to the polls

18 October 2002

At dawn on 24 October, for the first time in a generation, the polling booths will open in Bahrain for parliamentary elections. When they close, the Gulf's first constitutional monarchy will have become a practical reality. It may have taken longer than some might have hoped, but the political reforms are irrevocable. Says Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa: 'The parliamentary initiative has already succeeded. It is an irreversible process.'

It is one that will shape Bahrain's future and will be closely studied elsewhere in the Gulf. History will be the judge, but late October 2002 may be the start of a revolution that will transform the way the countries of the region are governed.

The Bahraini political transformation, however, is not without controversy. Four major political groups are boycotting the elections for the 40-member chamber of deputies in protest at the powerful role that will be played by the upper house, which will comprise solely of appointed members, in the bicameral parliamentary system approved in February this year. There is a possibility that the turnout at the election will be disappointingly low as a result. Government officials, on the other hand, prefer to highlight the fact that more than 25 other groups are participating in the elections. They include left-wing and Islamist associations that have put aside their doubts and decided to work for further change from within.

The atmosphere in Manama with a week to go to the historic vote was ostensibly calm, but heavy with anticipation. Posters promoting parliamentary candidates adorn the streets of the capital, with more than 130 candidates fighting for a place in the lower chamber of deputies.

The vote ends the beginning of a political reform process that can be traced back to the accession in March 1999 of Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa following the death of his father, the Emir Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa. The national pact, a blueprint for a democratic Bahrain, was approved by a massive majority in a referendum in February 2001. A year later, Bahrain was converted from a state to a kingdom and Sheikh Hamad became a monarch.

This transformation has been wrought at a remarkable pace - by regional standards - and with little fuss. The next phase could be more demanding. There is a growing expectation that, after the elections and the formation of Bahrain's bicameral parliament, more radical change is in store. It is anticipated that a new cabinet - at present headed by Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the veteran and formidable prime minister and uncle of the king - will be assembled. There is considerable speculation about its composition. Big changes and an injection of new blood at the very highest levels are widely expected.

The chamber and the council will start to develop. The lower house, which has the job of scrutinising the performance of the government but cannot independently propose legislation, will evolve gradually. In due course, a loyal parliamentary opposition that holds the cabinet to account is expected to develop.

This will place additional pressure on any new government, which will in any case face a host of key challenges. The new politics will have to be bedded down and the economic benefits delivered in a tangible fashion to a population whose expectations have been lifted by political reforms and new transparency. By common agreement, the most pressing issue is the high level of unemployment, particularly among young Bahrainis. The solution is likely to focus on upgrading the skills of the local workforce and reducing the high level of dependency on expatriate workers. Neither is a costless or easy option.

Also near the top of the agenda is the need to attract private investment from home and abroad. A raft of initiatives have already been launched, including allowing foreign ownership of land, capital market reform and projects such as the ambitious Bahrain Financial Harbour. Some see this as Bahrain's fightback against the allure of Dubai, but the official line is to avoid invidious comparisons with the commercial capital of the UAE.

The new Bahrain is positioning itself more vigorously as an interlocutor between the Arab world and the West. Crown Prince Salman calls for Iraq's compliance with UN Security Council resolutions while condemning Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza. Manama will also have a key role to play in developing the GCC. This will be highlighted in March 2003, when the kingdom hosts an Arab League summit.

But these are matters for the future. For the moment, the people of Bahrain are enjoying the unfamiliar experience of having their say about how they are ruled.

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