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Bahrain's left-wingers look for election comeback

The National Democratic Action Society hopes an anti-corruption and reformist platform in the November elections will start a shift away from the Right.

Ebrahim Sharif, Waad's secretary general, right, blamed his defeat in 2006 on government influence.
Ebrahim Sharif, Waad's secretary general, right, blamed his defeat in 2006 on government influence.

MANAMA // Bahrain's largest secular political party is gearing up to contest the November elections in a move its leader hopes will restore the Left in the country to its former glory.

The National Democratic Action Society, or Waad - which means "promise" in Arabic - is hoping to secure a share of the 40 seats in a parliament now firmly in the hands of Sunni and Shiite Islamists. The party, which was the first political group to be licensed in the Gulf, is considered the second largest of Bahrain's opposition parties after its ally, the Islamic Shiite Al Wefaq. Earlier this month, Waad announced it would contest the vote. On Saturday, the group elected its central committee vice president, Abdullah Janahi, as general co-ordinator of the high committee for the 2010 parliamentary and municipal elections.

But the party, which will campaign on a platform of constitutional reform and anti-corruption, will have its work cut out. In the 2006 elections Waad failed to win any seats, a result that reflects the demise of the Left on both the island and across the region. Historically, the Left in Bahrain had strong support thanks to a local working class that emerged as a result of the discovery of oil in the 1930s, and industrialisation. Waad's roots can be traced to the Popular Front, a radical opposition movement of Maoists, socialists and Arab nationalists in the 1960s. But the collapse of communism, the demise of Arab nationalism and the rise of the Islamist parties have seen a drop in support for left-wing groups.

Waad's secretary general, Ebrahim Sharif, said his party's biggest concern is that Bahrain's two-chamber national assembly, half elected and half appointed by the king, does not have the real power to influence the process of national decision-making. "The issues will be similar to those of the last election, mainly relating to democracy, constitutional reform, fighting corruption and good governance," said Mr Sharif, who has led the party since 2005. "Today the electorate, more than ever before, is aware of the importance of the constitutional reform, and even pro-government MPs admit that the 2002 constitution limits their legislative and oversight powers."

Mr Sharif also said the party plans to run fewer contenders than in 2006 because of the conviction that parliament would not bring about real change, a view shared by many Bahrainis who, after going to the election booth twice in the past eight years, feel that their elected representatives have accomplished little. Mr Sharif, whose party boycotted the 2002 election - the first since Bahrain's king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, introduced political reforms - said contesting the November vote is as much about spreading the message of constitutional reform as it is about gaining seats.

"Our main reason for participation is to use the election platform to spread our message that the parliament is paralysed by the constitution, that constitutional reform is important to implement rule of law and make governments accountable to the people, and that corruption at the highest level will continue unless we embark on a real reform process," said Mr Sharif, who might run for a seat. "The government will do everything, including outright election fraud, to prevent an opposition-controlled parliament."

It is a platform similar to the one that brought such little success in 2006. Aside from reform, the party will focus again on corruption and what Mr Sharif called the "confiscation of state land, shores, and even the sea". "These stolen state properties, which enriched the few and increased many fold the cost of owning a property to the majority, are valued at tens of billions of dollars". Mr Sharif blamed the 2006 election defeat on government influence. He claimed pressure was exerted on voters to increase support for "loyalist candidates" who were running against Waad, including giving orders to citizens employed in the military and security forces to vote in favour of pro-government candidates.

"In 2006 Waad won five per cent of the popular vote while running only six candidates out of 40 possible seats," Mr Sharif said. "In four districts we won over 40 per cent of the vote, and forced a second round in three districts. "We thought we had a good chance of winning three or four seats, but the government had other plans." Mr Sharif said the government used newly naturalised citizens to "tip the balance against the opposition" and denied Waad access to the voters' address register. "It was impossible for us to know if many of the voters do actually exist," he said.

Mr Sharif said a Waad win in 2006 could have shifted the power in an otherwise pro-government parliament in favour of the opposition, but he said a non-religious party was seen as a threat to the country's elite. "The parliament and the districts have been built and polarised along sectarian lines," Mr Sharif said. "Waad, a secular party with a focus on fighting corruption, was seen as a dangerous force that might be able to refocus issues away from the contentious sectarian divide and attack the discrimination issue, not from the angle of Shiite versus Sunni, but from the angle of elite versus the rest of the population."

The government has repeatedly denied claims of mass naturalisation of Sunni Muslims to influence elections and the demographic make-up of the country. Mr Sharif pointed out that it would take Waad two to three months to finalise its list of candidates and get the party leadership to approve their ticket and programme. He did not hide his hopes that the veteran female politician Munira Fakhro would consider running on a Waad ticket again.

"Munira Fakhro is a distinguished leader in our party and is the best-known woman politician in Bahrain. She has almost 50 years of political activism to support her credentials. I hope she will reconsider another fight for the people who loved her and are calling on us to renominate her," he said. He said it was unlikely to see a unified opposition ticket, opening the door for the possibility of opposition candidates facing off against one another in some districts.

Al Wefaq, which managed to secure 17 seats in 2006, is insistent on contesting all 18 majority Shiite districts, Mr Sharif said, adding that he expected a limited alliance between opposition parties in some districts. He did point out, however, that the current composition of Islamist and liberals in the opposition still can be a valid force in local politics. "The formula worked in Bahrain and in other places, most notably Lebanon and Yemen. Opposition groups from different ideologies can work together if they put their priorities in the right order.

"The priority for all opposition parties is the constitutional reform, ending discrimination and political naturalisation, and fighting corruption," he said. "Dividing a non-democratic society along some misguided ideological fault lines may undermine democratic reform. There is always place for ideology, but at the right time and in the right amount. At this time, the part of the ideology that is relevant to all opposition groups is that of fighting for the common man, Shiite and Sunni, against the entrenched parasitic ruling class."

@Email:mmahdi@thenational.ae