MANAMA // Concerns are growing as Bahrain's largest opposition group delays its decision whether to contest next year's elections for the Gulf island's young and fragile parliament amid accusations that the government is not solving social and sectarian problems.
With many incumbents and new challengers reaching out to prospective voters in recent weeks, Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the largest of the parliamentary blocs, which secured 17 out of the 40 elected seats in 2006, is threatening to repeat the 2002 election boycott. The Shiite group was the only one of the three key opposition groups to win seats in 2006, but now its leaders are keeping their cards close to their chest as to whether they will participate in the November 2010 vote.
While officials say a delay over a decision is the result of the society's "ongoing internal review to evaluate their parliamentary performance", the inability of government to tackle a host of serious issues on the Gulf island has left the party frustrated with the political system. As part of a series of political reforms, the king called Bahrain's first parliamentary election in 2002, hoping to end the sporadic violence and political unrest of the 1990s. Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf where Shiite Muslims outnumber Sunnis. For years, Shiites have complained about discrimination. But Al Wafeq came under fire from its supporters, who alleged that it failed to achieve meaningful results over some of these key issues.
"The decision has to be reached ahead of the elections, but it cannot be made before we complete our review of the overall situation and at the same time demand from the authority that it rectifies the situation," said Khalil al Marzooq, the spokesman and deputy of the Al Wefaq parliamentary bloc. He said the lack of tangible results could have grave ramifications for the country. "Failing to revive the democratic process and proving that it could achieve something represents a danger to the country and its security, because people would lose faith in the process and seek other avenues outside the constitutional institutions to achieve their demands," Mr al Marzooq said.
"If the failure of the opposition to participate in the process becomes a reality, that could signal the return of the unrest with destructive consequences as the people's options within the peaceful process vanish". The legislator said Al Wefaq's reluctance to participate in the next election came from its frustration with the political system in which the pro-monarchy parties and a shura, or council, appointed by the king, held the other 62 parliamentary seats.
Limited powers of the elected lower house, the internal regulations controlling its operations, the government and other blocs' unresponsiveness to their efforts, and the appointed upper house blocking the passage of laws were causes for concern, Mr al Marzooq said. The party is also unhappy with the current distribution of electoral districts, which it says is unfair and unbalanced with some smaller districts having as much say as the bigger ones.
"The six districts of the southern governorate, where there are a total of 16,000 voters, help elect six members of parliament, while the first district of the northern governorate, which has 16,000 voters, only elects one." Mr al Marzooq said that despite political reforms, the problems of naturalisation and discrimination continued. Some Bahrainis claim the government's current policy of granting nationality to foreigners - mainly Sunni Arabs as well as Asians from the subcontinent - aims to demographically alter the country.
"There is a review of the naturalisation process because of increasing regional and international concern mainly over security issues," Mr al Marzooq said. "We fear the spread of the anti-reforms drive, which has its own limited agenda and continues to build networks within the government to counter the reforms introduced in 2001". In the past, the Bahraini government has denied claims of discrimination and allegations of naturalisation outside the legal boundaries for purposes related to political and social demography.
However, for most prospective voters, it is the problem with basic services, such as housing, health and education, that affect their daily lives. Mr al Marzooq said if the party failed to achieve some of the basic needs of the public by the end of the fourth term of parliament, which begins this month, then it might decide against taking part in the 2010 elections. Last month, Al Wefaq said that housing issues would be among its top priorities in the upcoming term.
Bahrain, like some of the neighbouring Gulf countries, builds houses for its citizens. The homes are affordable and the payments can be made in instalments over 10 to 20 years. However, in recent years demand has exceeded supply with a slowdown in construction activities. According to government figures, some 40, 000 housing requests are pending. Bahrain's crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al Khlifa, who visited the society during Ramadan, said that infrastructure, housing development, electricity and education were the Bahraini government's key concerns.
In 2006, Al Wefaq supported candidates from the leftist Waad (Promise) group and the independent Abdulaziz Abul, believed to be pro al Wefaq, who ran in a district. Mr Abul, however, broke ranks with the Al Wefaq bloc shortly after his election victory, while Waad candidates failed to win the districts they contested in. "We will continue to work with our coalition members and we are looking at all the districts and not just the 18 we won in 2006," Mr al Marzooq said.
He also downplayed concerns over a recurrence of the situation witnessed in the recent Kuwaiti elections, where Islamist lost control of parliament to moderates and women claimed that the situation was different. "The continued feeding of sectarian tension helps ensure that Islamists remain in power, in addition to the fact that there are other factors such as naturalisation and voting districts, which are in play here," Mr al Marzooq said.