x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sunni opposition leader: Bahrain election 'will change nothing'

Abdullah Hashem says a fair vote in the current electoral system is unlikely, with candidacy controlled at every level and any challengers to the government replaced.

Abdullah Hashem, left, at a pro-Palestine rally organised by the Adalah National Movement in March 2008.
Abdullah Hashem, left, at a pro-Palestine rally organised by the Adalah National Movement in March 2008.

MANAMA // Bahrain's only Sunni opposition party has said it is pessimistic about the results of November's elections with no prospects for genuine parliamentary change. Abdullah Hashem, the secretary general of the Adalah National Movement, blamed direct government interference and the use of public money to finance campaigns for what he predicts will be a parliamentary and municipal election that falls short of others in the Arab world.

He believes the pro-government Sunni parties and the main Shiite opposition grouping will continue to dominate parliament. Adalah, meaning justice, was formed four years ago ahead of the 2006 elections with an eye on securing parliamentary seats in this year's elections. It was created with the aim of giving Sunnis a wider say in local politics and to counter the influence of the US, Britain and Iran in domestic and regional politics.

Despite its pessimism, the group intends to run candidates in two out of the eight hotly contested seats among Sunni Islamists, leftists, pan-Arab, and independent candidates in Muharraq - one of Bahrain's five governorates. "The Bahraini elections reflect a division of power between the authorities and the largest of the Shiite opposition grouping - Al Wefaq," Mr Hashem said. "It is that meticulous nature of the system which makes these elections unable to meet the criteria that allow it to rise to the level of elections we witnessed in Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, or even Egypt."

Mr Hashem believes that this division of power was reinforced by the government deliberately directing Bahrain's military forces how to vote - a charge it denies - and the use of public money to support pro-government candidates. But he also blames Al Wefaq, which, through not fighting what many see as the government's attempts to influence the results, has indirectly accepted the current balance of power. In effect, Mr Hashem said, this excludes other national and liberal opposition groups from reaching parliament.

Mr Hashem said he expected to see 23 pro-government candidates voted in again this year after these candidates receive the approval of the authorities that backed them with financial support. "That is why the last elections produced 17 Shiite members of parliament in the face of 23 pro-government Sunni members of parliament," he said. "The authorities see these 23 MPs, which are made up of classical Sunni Islamist movements from Salaf and Islamic Brotherhood as well as independents, as the government lobby inside the parliament.

"The problem also lies in the fact that this breakdown of power which prevents the entrance of any national or liberal opposition movements into parliament is acceptable within Al Wefaq." Mr Hashem said this year candidates have openly sought the approval of the authorities before announcing their running, while in 2002 and 2006, that process was not as public. He said such interference from above was also affecting the Shiite opposition with the clerical hierarchy determining which Shiite candidates will run.

According to Mr Hashem, a number of pro-government MPs are currently under consideration to be replaced, after they failed to fully comply with the official line of their parties. "The pro-government MPs are expected to be in line with the government on the key issues while they are free to manoeuvre and issue statements on secondary issues up till the last minute when they have to fall in line with the government again when voting takes place," he said.

"All of the key issues had been voted along the lines of 23-17 while all the secondary issues had been marred by loud screams and controversy by the MPs". Mr Hashem, who claims there is no real representation of the Sunni public in parliament, added that the lack of an acceptable, strong unifying Islamic figure among the Sunnis, in contrast to the Shiites, had weakened their position. One of the biggest hurdles his party has faced has been damaging allegations that its members and other Sunni opposition figures have supported terrorist groups.

According to Mr Hashem, a prominent lawyer who has helped secure the release of several Bahrainis facing terrorism charges, these accusations have been used to weaken Adalah and drive away support despite the fact it has been proven through courts that such links do not exist. "The campaign against us, as a group and individuals, began more than two years ago by trying to brand us as supporters of people who carry out terrorism and before that attempts to brand us as unreligious and unbelievers all in an effort to scare and drive people away."

One Adalah board member and former fighter against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, Muhieddin Khan, ran as an independent in the Southern governorate in 2006. He spent most of his campaign facing charges of having links to al Qa'eda and other extremist groups, before his name was cleared by a court just few days before the elections. Mr Hashem declined to reveal which two constituencies of Muharraq his party would be contesting and denied that it was a lack of financial or grass root support that was stopping it from standing for more of the 40 elected parliamentary seats.

"No matter how much we spend it would be no match to the public money that would be pumped to support the pro-government candidates which is 15 or 20 times higher than what any other candidate can raise," he said. Mr Hashem said that they have no "red lines" regarding establishing alliances and backing independent or other groups' candidates, as long as these alliances are built on respect for each other as equals.

"I am calling on all opposition groups, be those who are participating in the political process or boycotting it, to come together and discuss options to form a unified front for the opposition which is not only concerned with the elections," he said. "No one should feel the need to give up on his principles, but there is room within that to create a unified political project." @Email:mmahdi@thenational.ae