x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Leftist party seeks to break grip on power by Bahrain's Islamists

With its decision to field four candidates in the upcoming National Assembly elections, Al Minbar looks to give the main opposition a more liberal slant.

MANAMA // One of Bahrain's leading leftist parties is hoping to break the Islamists' eight-year hold on power by fielding candidates to challenge their incumbents in this year's election. If successful, the move would shift the balance of power in the opposition coalition from conservative Islamists to the more liberal components of the coalition, including the Democratic Progressive Tribune Society, or Al Minbar.

Al Minbar plans to run at least four candidates in November's election in a push to secure places in the 40-seat parliament. Bahrain's upper house (Shura) is made up of 40 council members appointed by the king, with the two chambers making up the National Assembly. The Left, eyeing a bigger role to play in shaping the country's laws and fearing additional sectarian tension between the Sunni-Shiite Islamists who controlled the 2006 parliament, opted to make a serious push to secure adequate representation in the lower house.

Al Minbar's secretary general, Hasan Madan, who is one of the four leading candidates planning to run, said: "The make-up of the last parliament no doubt had a big role in inflaming sectarian tension in society because confrontation between the different blocs under its dome and the way they addressed the issues was dealt with from a sectarian perspective." The soft-spoken and widely respected Mr Madan had recently announced plans to run against the incumbent MP Jawad Fairooz in the eighth district of the Northern Governorate.

Mr Fairooz is one of 17 MPs in the Islamic Shiite Al Wefaq bloc, the largest and only opposition bloc that managed to win seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2006. "The voice of the liberals and democrats is absent in parliament despite their strong presence in the society; that is why there is a vital need for the movement to seek parliamentary representation," Mr Madan said. Fadel al Halabi, a board member of Al Minbar's political committee, will also run against an incumbent MP from Al Wefaq, Khalil Marzooq, in the capital district

According to Mr Madan, increasing public freedoms, protecting civil liberties, improving standards of living and basic public services - such as health care, education and housing - and the country's infrastructure are all key issues Al Minbar will campaign on. Encouraging more openness in society, empowering women and combating corruption will also be pivotal issues in their campaign. Al Minbar is an offshoot of the underground Marxist-Leninist Bahrain Liberation Front, formed in 1955, which resisted British occupation and fought to secure labour rights for Bahraini workers. It is one of the three leftist political groups making up the six-party opposition alliance, which includes Islamist Shiites, Pan-Arab and Marxist parties.

Abdulnabi Salman, Al Minbar's deputy secretary general and a former MP, said: "Time has come to have diversity on the political level inside the parliament and the country needs it,". He added that the party will continue to push for a unified coalition among the leftist groups. "There is a need today to unify the loosely linked Left, especially in the face of the rising tide of sectarianism and Islamist politics, to balance the political scene in the country, and only the democratic movement can achieve such balance".

Broad demands for constitutional reforms coupled with calls for more independence and wider powers for the legislative branch, opposition to alleged corruption and politically motivated naturalisation of foreigners to change the country's demographics have held the coalition together thus far, with the Islamist Al Wefaq emerging as a clear leader of the pack. The opposition boycotted the first parliamentary elections in 2002, but Al Minbar opted to take part and secured three seats. However, four years later they failed to repeat their success when the rest of the opposition ended their boycott, with none of their five candidates, including three incumbents, receiving enough votes in the 2006 polls.

"The parliament has turned into a key political arena in Bahrain in which we must be present in despite our reservations about the hurdles that ... are impeding its performance," Mr Salman said. Two other candidates for Al Minbar, Ghazi al Hameer and Ali al Binali, who are well-known union activists, will be seeking to secure seats from districts in the Central Governorate. "Our society's grassroots is founded on protecting the rights of the working class and the workers and we have been doing that since 1937, so it is natural that our candidates come from among the ranks of unionists," Mr Salman, who won a seat in 2002, said.

He added that Al Minbar had no choice but to run their candidates in districts now represented by Al Wefaq because support for the two parties overlap in those places. "Our programme has a lot in common with the rest of the opposition. That is why we were the first to call for a unified national electoral opposition bloc to benefit from the experiences of 2002 and 2006 elections and help each other so a real unified opposition movement materialises," Mr Salman said.

"The chance for setting up such a coalition still remains, but if we fail to agree on it I fear that the sectarian tension inside the parliament would only rise." If Mr Salman decides to run, he will be the third Al Minbar candidate to go up against an incumbent MP from Al Wefaq. @Email:mahdinational@gmail.com