x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Battle lines drawn in Bahrain ballot

Although the next election is not for another 16 months, early indications are that the ruling Islamists could face a huge backlash from a well organised opposition.

A Bahraini man and his son cast a ballot during the 2006 November elections
A Bahraini man and his son cast a ballot during the 2006 November elections

Manama // If rumours and behind-the-scenes talk are any indication of what is to come, then Bahrain's 2010 parliamentary and municipal elections are set to be as tumultuous as the previous two, but this time opposition parties are looking to make big gains. None of the key players is yet willing to go on the record to discuss future plans, with some even going as far as alleging that they are still considering whether or not to run, but battle lines are being drawn nonetheless.

Islamists, both Sunni and Shiite, who control the lower house of the national assembly, are facing the possibility of having their influence seriously curtailed in the November 2010 elections. Shiite Islamists from Al Wefaq society, the largest of the parliamentary blocs with 16 out of the 40 seats, are under fire from their base, while Sunni Islamists are also facing challenges from within. Both are accused by many of their supporters of failing to secure any meaningful results during their reign.

Both are also facing renewed challenges from liberals and the business community, two groups that have so far failed to secure a meaningful presence in parliament, but are gaining in popularity. Sunni Islamist members of parliament from the Al-Menbar Islamic Society, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Al Asalah, which both hold seven seats, seem to be facing their biggest challenges yet.

The two, which have been pro-government, managed to secure seats in both the 2002 parliament, which was boycotted by the Shiite and liberal opposition, and the 2006 parliament, which ended that boycott. The biggest challenge to the Islamist parties will come from the rising star of the Sunni opposition, the Al Adalah (Justice) National Movement, which in recent years has attracted an increasing number of supporters among Sunnis.

The group, which was formed ahead of the 2006 election, is Islamist in nature but also serves as an umbrella group for moderate and independent Sunni figures. Al Adalah is led by the charismatic lawyer, Abdullah Hashim, but among its ranks are also locally well-known Bahraini activists, including some who were accused of terrorism or detained in Guantanamo Bay before being cleared and released. Its members had actively campaigned to secure the release of all Bahrainis detained in the country or abroad on terrorism charges as well as expressing support for resistance groups in Afghanistan and Iraq, attracting the wrath of the Bush administration and some regional governments. This led to the arrest and blacklisting of several of its members, which at the same time created a solid track-record with the group's support base.

The group had also expressed deep concern over Iranian influence on Bahraini and regional affairs, but nonetheless had on several occasions affirmed its willingness to work with the Shiite opposition, be it groups working within the parliamentary frame such as Al Wefaq or outside it - something that might prove to expand the opposition's grip on the lower house. "We will be taking part in the next elections either by having members run under Al Adalah nominees list or by forming alliances - most likely with independent candidates from other lists," Mr Hashim said. "Right now we are in the process of evaluating which districts we will be running in."

Mr Hashim did not hide his frustration with what he described as efforts to "fabricate" the true will of Sunni voters, either through political money being pumped into Sunni districts or moving military personnel to live in those areas to vote for specific candidates from what he described as the "classical religious forces". Al Menbar, one of the two key Sunni blocs in parliament, will also face an additional major challenge to its fifth district seat in Muharraq after Adel Jassim Flaifel, a former colonel, officially expressed his intent to contest there.

Col Flaifel, who was the head of one of the key security service agencies, is accused by the opposition of overseeing the torture and exile of detainees during the 1990s. He was removed from his post as part of the reconciliation and reforms introduced in 1999. He later fled to Australia after allegedly embezzling 24 million Bahraini dinars (Dh 234m) from investors during his time in office, before returning to deny the charges.

n an interview earlier this month, Col Flaifel said his intention to run under the umbrella of an unknown Islamist grouping, which also intends to nominate two more candidates in two other districts, was part of his efforts to combat poverty. Col Flaifel's candidacy, which reportedly had set one million dinars aside to be distributed in various forms to Bahrainis as part of the campaign drive, has attracted only mute criticism from key opposition players so far.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) expressed regret at the news, and renewed calls to put Col Flaifel on trial and to freeze his assets. "The emergence of Flaifel's name as a parliamentary candidate is frustrating and dangerous," said BCHR president Nabeel Rajab in a statement. "It will lead people to lose the remaining glimmer of hope pinned on the political process, which is already flaccid".

Ironically, the opposition, despite limited criticism, has remained quiet about the issue, with one source pointing out that Col Flaifel's candidacy could prove to be advantageous to the troubled opposition - particularly the Shiite faction. "It has the potential to backfire and galvanise support for the opposition among its discontented base as well as encourage other hard-line opposition who has so far refrained from voting for them in other districts just out of spite," said a senior opposition politician, who wished not to be named.

Others point-out that even if Col Flaifel manages to secure the seat, after facing-off with Al-Asalah, Al-Menbar, and Al-Adalah, his arrival in parliament would open the door for the opposition to blame any shortcomings in the parliament's performance on alleged government interference, as well as raising the possibility of renewed scrutiny of his past record. Businessmen and liberals are also expected to make a new push to secure seats in parliament, encouraged by the government, as well as a large section of the public.

The wild card this time could be women - who account for 49 per cent of the population - as was the case recently in Kuwait where voters lashed out through the ballot box at traditional forces and the government for failing to produce results. The 2006 November elections had a turnout of 72 per cent, with the lower house falling under the expanded control of Islamists for the second time, as liberal and communist MPs from the 2002 elections lost their seats.

Despite speculation that the 2006 elections would usher in more change, particularly after the opposition ended their boycott and made it into parliament, the public remained disappointed over the elected body's failure to tackle key issues such as public housing shortages and unemployment. Many of the frustrations were reflected in violence spilling on to the streets over the past few years, ending in severe clashes, some of which saw loss of life and damages to private and public property.