x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Salafist party is tested and election-ready

The leader of a key Sunni bloc in parliament is confident going into next year's elections, in part because their victories were so hard-fought last time.

MANAMA // The Al Asalah Islamic Society, Bahrain's main Sunni Salafist political movement, is confident of having its parliamentary representatives re-elected in 2010, according to Ghanim al Buainain, the party's chairman and head of its five-member parliamentary bloc. Al Asalah is better known in the Gulf island for advancing a strict interpretation of Islam than for its efforts to adopt a more comprehensive social security law and raising wages in the public sector, but its support base seems to be unwavering as the party prepares to contest the election in November next year. The Bahrain National Assembly will reconvene on Sunday for the opening of the fourth session of the second and final legislative term of the 2006 parliament.

While Al Asalah has spearheaded efforts to ban alcohol sales and calls for the establishment of a supreme committee to enforce Sharia, its social and economic programmes continue to drum up strong support among its constituents, according to Mr al Buainain. "From public opinion assessments carried out in the districts which helped elect our members, we gauge satisfaction with the bloc's performance and intend to have all our members of parliament rerun for elections in 2010," said Mr al Buainain, who is also the parliament's first deputy speaker. The party has pushed through a more comprehensive social security law, several laws to raise public sector wages, provided financial assistance to citizens and secured additional government-supported housing, all of which could come into play in next year's elections.

"Our chances of winning are reinforced by the public satisfaction of our performance and we are confident, but the final say would be left to the voters when they cast their ballots on election day," Mr al Buainain said. The Al Asalah bloc, which is the political wing of the Islamic Education Society, is allied with three other independent MPs and is one of the two key Sunni blocs in parliament. The other is the seven-member bloc of Al Menbar National Islamic Society, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al Eslah Society. Al Asalah will be contesting elections for the third time since parliamentary life was reintroduced to Bahrain's mainstream politics in 2001 as part of a political, economic, and social reform programme.

Unlike its opposition Shiite counterpart, Al Wefaq, which boycotted the 2002 elections before returning to contest the 2006 vote in which it secured 18 seats, Al Asalah believes that taking part in the elections has helped secure the interests of its supporters. However, some have labelled the party "pro-government" because of its participation in the 2002 election and continued support, alongside Al Menbar, for some government legislation since then. Mr al Buainain dismissed the claims, saying he was not sensitive to the issue if, by being labelled pro-government, it meant Al Asalah was loyal to legitimate authority. He said the Al Asalah bloc had confronted the government on many issues in parliament and at every stage of the legislative process, including land ownership, reform of the national airline Gulf Air, corruption, and labour reforms.

"I won't say we were the most confrontational of the blocs with the government but we were the bloc who differed with it the most," Mr al Buainain said. He added that the districts that elected Al Asalah were among the most hotly contested seats in the country with a wide diversity ranging from Islamists - Sunni as well as Shiite - to leftists and liberals. Mr al Buainain said Al Wefaq faced no real opposition in the districts it won in 2006 because they were predominately Shiite and religious leaders directed voters to support the party. "We had to convince the voters of our agenda and fight to win such votes in our districts," he said.

"The elections are more than a year away but if you come to Muharraq [an island north of the capital, Manama] you will notice that the political campaigning and movement has begun as if the elections will be held next week and that reflects how diverse the make-up of the districts is and how hotly they are contested." Mr al Buainain did not elaborate on which new districts Al Asalah was planning to contest or which candidates from other parties it would extend its support to. However he emphasised that co-ordination with other groups would be limited only to those that share the same ideology. The issues raised by Al Asalah bloc members include a push for a ban of alcohol sales during Ramadan, allowing veiled women to drive, opposing concerts by the Lebanese singer Haifa Wahbi and introducing legislation against sorcery and fortune telling. "We are willing to co-operate with all the political players who subscribe to the fundamentals of our beliefs, but we cannot co-operate with those who ideologically differ with us," Mr al Buainain said.

Unlike the opposition, Mr al Buainain said that to a large extent he was content with the distribution of the voting districts because he believed it represented all the country's different ethnic groups. Al Wefaq, on the other hand, believes the districts are unfair because some have a much larger population than others. "It needs to be tested for a longer period of 15 to 20 years as we cannot base the distribution of districts just on population density. We also need to take into account the geographic and expected future population growth," Mr al Buainain said. He said he had not seen any proof to support opposition claims of mass naturalisation by the government with the intent of demographically changing the population make up in favour of Sunnis. Such an influx would not be in Al Asalah's favour because it would undermine its voting base, Mr al Buainain said.

He reiterated the group's opposition to women running in elections but did not oppose the fact that women were given suffrage. foreign.desk@thenational.ae