x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Bahrain sets sights on poll transparency

A joint committee formed by two local rights groups, will train 200 monitors to ensure fair play in the November elections.

Manama // Two of Bahrain's leading human rights societies have set-up an independent joint committee (RIGHT) to monitor the upcoming parliamentary and municipal elections. The Bahrain Human Rights Society and Bahrain Transparency Society monitored the elections in 2002 and 2006. The government has not yet said whether it will allow international observers, who were absent during the last two votes, to watch over November's elections.

Abdulla al Derazi, the secretary general of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, said this year the joint committee planned to put more people on the ground by training some 200 monitors, up from the 176 they had last time. Their job is to ensure fair play by the candidates and the elections commission. "Some of them will be from among those who monitored earlier elections and some will be new," Mr al Derazi said.

"All of them, however, will receive special training based on current international standards to qualify for this role." Mr al Derazi said the training would include monitoring the election campaigns, the application of the electoral law and an equal provision of media opportunities for all candidates. "The committee will also carry out monitoring on voting day and ballot counting at the polling centres," he said.

According to Mr al Derazi the committee, which will release details of documented violations by either candidates or the election commission before elections, had already started monitoring the build-up to the elections, a move that is in line with the "soft campaigning" launched by prospective candidates. The committee does not have an official status, but the Bahraini government had allowed it in the past to monitor elections. Mr al Derazi said they would continue with the work until a law regulating election monitoring was adopted by the National Assembly.

"It has become an established custom," Mr al Derazi said. "I do not think the upcoming elections will be an exception." He added that re-establishing the joint committee was a result of their success in the past elections, but pointed out that their achievement did not dismiss the need for having international monitors. "We hope that they [the election commission] will allow international monitoring for the 2010 elections because it is good for the democratic process and the credibility and objectivity of the elections," he said.

"There will be monitors from other local groups, but it has not been confirmed whether international observers will be allowed to monitor this year's elections". Mr al Derazi said the biggest challenge would arise from monitoring the controversial general polling stations. They are set up outside the constituency-specific polling station in each district, allowing all voters from across the island to cast their ballots.

In 2002, 15 of them were set up in locations such as Bahrain International Airport and the King Fahad Causeway, linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, but in 2006 the number of general polling stations were slashed to 10. The government maintains that the general stations eased the voting process for eligible voters and allowed people to cast their ballots without any external pressure that could be exerted on them at the constituency-specific centres.

Critics say they opened the door to vote manipulation, as they are harder to monitor, especially when dual nationality holders cast their ballots. "The existence of the public polling centres is a persistent problem we face. They are difficult to monitor since there are no addresses provided on voter lists," Mr al Derazi said. "The use of the public polling centres had influenced some of the results. We also have concerns about military personnel voting because the electoral law does not specify exactly if they are allowed to vote or not".

According to the opposition, a substantial number of Bahrain's police and defence forces comprises dual nationality holders. Mr al Derazi added that the absence of a permanent election commission unfair distribution of constituencies, the use of religious places by candidates for campaign purposes, and transfers of ballot boxes from the general to the main centres were also of concern for the committee.

He urged abolition of general voting centres so as to "give more credibility to the elections" and inclusion of addresses of the electorate in voter lists. "The electoral law should also be amended to reflect a more fair distribution of constituencies with international monitoring of elections allowed," Mr al Derazi said. He said a special report by the committee would be released within a month after the second round of election ends, adding that so far 142 perspective candidates had expressed their intention to contest this election.

In October 2002 Bahrain held its first legislative elections in 29 years, almost 30 years after its first parliament was dissolved. The elections were part of political, social and economic reforms introduced by Bahrain's king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, upon his rise to power in 1999. A new constitution was also adopted. This year's elections are expected to be contested by both pro-government and opposition groups, comprising Islamists, liberals and businessmen from both sides, as well as independents and female candidates.