x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Bahraini politicans woo supporters, one majlis at a time

As the government prepares to announce the date of the next municipal and parliamentary polls, candidates are planning to start their campaign in Ramadan tents.

MANAMA // Bahrainis will probably be dealing with more politicians and less smoking this Ramadan season. The usual concerns of families over price increases for basic goods during Ramadan have diminished. There have been repeated assurances from the government and consumer-protection agencies that authorities will be particularly aggressive this season about controlling prices.

"It is unlikely that we will see price hikes before the advent of Ramadan. The prices are already lower then they were during last Ramadan," says Farook Hamzah, who runs a small fruit-and-vegetable store on the outskirts of Manama. Last month the cabinet directed government agencies to step up their efforts to prevent price tampering and to keep a close watch to ensure that food outlets meet the health standards ahead of the holy month.

All this comes as the government is expected to announce next week the date of the next municipal and parliamentary elections. With the balloting likely in November, campaigning will only increase. Already, prospective candidates have been busy for months visiting the traditional majlis hoping to win over constituents. "This is expected to be an elections Ramadan. We are likely to see the tense rivalry between the various parties, especially the Islamic ones, spill into these majlis," says Sheikh Salah al Jowder, a Sunni Muslim religious scholar.

"There are thousands of majlis in Bahrain and more will open up during Ramadan. The Islamic parties, especially the big ones contesting the elections, no longer just depend on their in-house and charity organisations activities to reach out to voters, but they will seek controlling or attracting some of these majlis to ensure their dominance". They have plenty of choice this time of year. The numbers of majlis mushroom during Ramadan, as more people stay up late after their fast.

"These majlis are important for any candidate because if he is to go out and start a campaign it would cost him thousands of dinars compared to coming to a majlis where constituents from all walks of life in the district are gathered," he says. Sheikh al Jowder, who is a member of the municipal council for the Muharraq second district and plans to run in the next elections, adds that the majlis will also play a key role in gauging the chances of prospective candidates. They are considered so reliable that some parties will use them to help determine which candidate to back.

He points out the need for religious scholars and imams to have a neutral stance. They should not get drawn into these election struggles that divide the community instead of uniting it, especially since the emotional impact of taking sides lasts beyond the elections. Sheikh al Jowder, who is respected by Sunni and Shiite scholars alike because of his moderate views, sounded a note of caution. Both the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs - which oversees political groups and religious establishments - and Ministry of Social Affairs - which oversees charitable organisations - need to monitor the political groups. Authorities suspect money is being funneled to certain candidates and that some have started using worship houses for election purposes.

For those who might hope to escape the politicking by visiting coffee shops in fashionable hotels or the tents hotels set up for Ramadan feasting to chat and perhaps relax by smoking shisha may be in for a surprise. The government initiative to ban smoking in public is gaining momentum. Last year Bahrain toughened its legislation and banned smoking in shopping malls, government offices, hotels, restaurants, public transport and private transport where children are present. A year earlier the advertising of cigarettes and tobacco products was prohibited.

This Ramadan, the fight against second-hand smoke will be taken to the Ramadan tents, particulary when children are present, says Dr Mariam al Jalahma, the assistant under-secretary of public health and primary care assistant at the Health Ministry. "This is a first-of-a-kind experiment for us during Ramadan and our target is not the smokers but protecting the non-smokers particularly the children," says Dr al Jalahma, who is also the vice- chairwoman of the national anti-smoking committee.

"The laws might reduce the number of times a smoker lights a cigarette, but the aim is to protect non-smokers from the harmful effects of second-hand smoking." "There has been great co-operation from the hotels so far," she said. "Most have opted to set up two tents, one for families and children where smoking is strictly prohibited and the other one for those who wish to smoke but no children will be allowed in even if accompanied by their parents"

Dr al Jalahma dismisses speculation that the move would be costly for the hotels and says it could actually help the bottom line. She said that "22 per cent of Bahrainis above the age of 19 are smokers and to assume that the remaining 78 per cent would not seek the entertainment and services of these tents is not true. If anything, families and non-smokers will be encouraged now to use those smoke-free facilities".