x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Bahraini opposition backs political participation

On eve of election, leader of largest opposition party says 'We look forward to the day where any child of the people, be they Sunni or Shiite, can become prime minister.'

Bahraini women wave the national flag during an election rally for the opposition in Manama.
Bahraini women wave the national flag during an election rally for the opposition in Manama.

MANAMA // In the run-up to tomorrow's parliamentary election, the leader of Bahrain's largest opposition party has endorsed the benefits of participating in the nation's political process.

In the largest rally so far in the campaign, Sheikh Ali Salman, the secretary general of the Shiite-dominated Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, said that since first winning seats in 2006, the society has protected government subsidies, increased salaries and returned some public land from private individuals to the state.

"We're not saying we've achieved everything we want, because this parliament doesn't have the authority to change everything," Sheikh Salman told an estimated crowd of 20,000 supporters late on Wednesday.

Al Wefaq boycotted the 2002 election, but still won 17 of 40 seats in Bahrain's lower, elected house of parliament in the election of 2006 The upper house, the Consultative Council, is made up of 40 members appointed by the king.

At the rally, held in a suburb of Manama, Sheikh Ali said the royal family was owed the "respect and consideration" of Bahrainis. At the same time, he also expressed hope that the office of the prime minister would someday be held by someone who is not one of its members.

"We look forward to the day where any child of the people, be they Sunni or Shiite, can become prime minister," he said, adding that this change would take time and should come about through peaceful means.

Abduljalil Ebrahim, one of the party's 18 parliamentary candidates, said Al Wefaq's leader had called for an end to the royal family's dominance of the cabinet's top post once before and was accused afterward of trying to change the regime.

"There is no article in the constitution that says the position of prime minister should be kept for the ruling family," Mr Ebrahim said. "He's saying, 'I don't want to overthrow the rulers, but everyone has the right to be prime minister'."

Disillusionment with the political system, including a constitution that gives the appointed house of parliament virtually as much power as the elected house, has led some Bahrainis to opt out of politics. In this archipelago of 1.1 million people, about 537,000 of whom are citizens, there are about 318,000 registered voters.

Mahar Abbas, a Shiite business development manager for a steel factory, said less than half of his family will vote in this year's election because "they don't want to confirm it is a real parliament by voting for it.

"We feel hopeless, this is not the parliament we are looking for to achieve our ambitions," Mr Abbas said.

Discontent has sometimes spilled into the streets. Amnesty International says some 250 people are believed to have been detained as part of a government clampdown on the mainly Shiite opposition since the arrest of 23 Shiite and human rights activists in August on accusations of being part of a terrorist network.

Last week, the human rights monitoring group said the denial of legal counsel to the detainees "exacerbates the risk of possible torture and other ill treatment". Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Khalifa, a member of the royal family and former ambassador to the UK, branded the suggestions of torture "absolutely ridiculous". He said the arrested men were setting off pipe bombs, hurling Molotov cocktails and "putting fear in innocent peoples' lives".

"If there is not strong enough evidence they will be released," Sheikh Abdulaziz said. "I don't see how when you implement the law of the land you call it a 'crackdown.'"

jcalderwood@thenational.ae