Elections should be considered a means to reform, not celebrated as an ends in themselves. Now that the first round of ballots is in from Bahrain, this ought to be remembered.
The island nation has a Shiite majority but the majority of its members of parliament are Sunni. Yesterday, the main Shiite party, the Wefaq, won 18 of 40 seats in the lower house of Bahrain's parliament. Some have already hailed the recent vote as a success, given the 67 per cent turnout, well above that in established democracies such as India or the US. Flawed elections can undermine a government's credibility; with a few important exceptions, these elections appeared to be fair. More importantly, the irregularities that occurred do not appear to have been significant enough to cause a return of the upheaval and anger that preceded the vote.
Two candidates on Wefaq's slate claim to have had their home addresses changed so that they could not run from their home districts. More problematic are those candidates who were not allowed to appear on the ballot at all. Wefaq has also claimed that at least 890 voters were turned away from polling stations because of electoral lists that were incomplete.
In Bahrain's smaller districts, small numbers of votes count. One constituency in the south has an electoral bloc of 770 while another district in the north has 16,223 voters. These discrepancies in the size of districts are worrying in themselves, since not all votes have an equal weight. But many democracies struggle with such difficulties. Bahrain is inching forward. Whether or not its incremental changes are enough to appease its young electorate remains to be seen.
Holding elections will not in itself create healthy and accountable institutions. Justice and democracy do not begin or end with an election and Bahrain's newly-elected should be the first to understand this.
The past few weeks have proved to be a trying time, particularly for ordinary Bahrainis. How will those that have been elected assuage their concerns? The challenge now is to ensure that the elections mattered and that all Bahrainis are regarded as stakeholders in their country.