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Bahrain: Will elections mark new chapter or deepen & embed division?

Article by Drewery Dyke & Layla C.

November 30, 2018

Bahrain: Will elections mark new chapter or deepen & embed division?

Bahrain goes to the polls tomorrow, 1st December, for the second, run-off, round in elections to the 40-seat lower house. So what? It is surely less significant than the ramifications of the grisly murder of Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October; the increasingly devastating conflict in Yemen – marked by widespread famine and destruction – and the nagging dispute between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours. Maybe, but its own ramifications are likewise significant and deep.

                             

Bahrain election tracker – November 2018

IndicatorYes  ✓ No Assessment / Comment
Opposition participationIn 2016, the government dissolved (banned) previous, longstanding political societies that functioned as opposition. Candidates for this election were required, de facto, to stand as independents in order to be permitted to stand; with members or former members of now-banned political bodies prohibited from standing.
Independent monitoring of election conductCommittees or bodies appointed do not have independence; one previously refused to publish findings.
Independent media (to hold process and candidates to account)All media is subject to government license and scrutiny; the last platform perceived as independent, al-Wasat, closed in 2017.
Role of political prisonersThousands, including former political leaders – generally prisoners of conscience – were specifically banned from standing.
Equitably-balanced electoral districtsThe distribution of electoral districts is skewed to ensure a pro-government majority; subject to careful gerrymandering.
(copied and adapted from an Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain image of the same information)

The 2018 elections in Bahrain look set to embed another entrenched, simmering domestic dispute that has pitted the island country’s majority Shi’a Muslim population against the minority Sunni Muslims, to which the ruling al-Khalifa family belong.

The 2018 parliamentary elections (some 30+ municipalities also held elections) were not designed to open a new chapter or to heal wounds that come with the mass arrests, killing and gross human rights violations that took place amidst the mass unrest of Bahraini edition of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 and in subsequent years but rather to try and bury unfinished business of quashing dissent; to put an end to the political and social unrest that had plagued the island since the 2011 uprisings and to clearly show – put crudely – who’s boss.

Should it matter to us? Bahrain is, after all, small – the population of greater Manchester is around double that of the country. But Bahrain is a key western ally, strategically located in the Gulf. The United States Fifth Fleet is headquartered there, and in April 2018 the United Kingdom officially opened a new Naval Support Facility, consisting of up to 500 personnel.[1]

Moreover, the fallout from the 2011 uprisings – and evisceration of relationship between minority rulers and majority ruled – provided an opportunity for non-Bahraini regional players, both ‘allies’ such as Saudi Arabia and ‘enemies’ such as Iran, to seek to instrumentalize these divisions, to push at these, often sectarian, divisions for their own ends. There is plenty to draw on to advance notions of division: the al-Khalifa’s close links with the Saudi Arabian authorities; historic, yet lingering ties of swathes of the population to Iran, mean that the dispute is bound to draw in the big regional players, and their own regional supporters, amongst states and people, exacerbating sectarian tension throughout the Gulf region and beyond.[2] This further undermines security and stability in Bahrain, across the Gulf and quite possibly that of the US and UK, too, who maintain military facilities on the island.

Round 1 – ‘orderly and transparent’

Upon closure of the first round of voting on 24th November, the government estimated voter turnout to be at 67 percent.[3] This exceeded the 53 percent claimed in the in 2014 election. An opposition figure assessed turnout this year to be around 30 percent.[4] In the first round, nine (of 40) MPs secured their seats by way of an outright majority, with pro-government independents seeing a big win.[5]

In the absence of any neutral monitoring body offering an objective assessment, government-approved bodies charged with ‘observing’ the election led the self-congratulatory chorus of self-praise. Faisal Fulad, well-known for his strong connection to the government but also the head of the The Election Monitoring Centre of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society (no relation to the US NGO Human Rights Watch) stated that the elections were held, by and large, ‘in an orderly and transparent manner’.[6]  He accused Iran of playing a major role in boycott calls that were designed to ‘thwart elections’ in the country. The absence of any independent media did not concern the Bahraini Jurists Society – another pro-government civil society organisation. They applauded what they termed free and impartial election coverage.[7] The Bahraini authorities, their allies and those governments willing to overlook flagrantly unfair practices are expected to extoll the outcome after tallying results of 1st December’s second round.

The twisting, barb-filled path to the November 2018 election

Mass demonstrations in early 2011, at the capital, Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, and marches in other areas, called for greater transparency, political reforms and more equality and political representation from the Shi’a majority. The government ignored the calls of the mainly peaceful, mass demonstrations: they crushed those making them, in confrontations in February 2011, then, in March 2011, when mainly Saudi Arabian and other Gulf Cooperation Council troops forcibly dispersed demonstrators, killing at least 35, after which the government declared martial law.[8]

Jawad Fairooz is the Director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR), a Bahrain-focused human rights group. He was an MP in 2010, when 18 of the 40 MPs in Bahrain’s parliament were from his political group, al-Wefaq, supported by a great many of Bahrain’s mainly Shi’a Muslim population. They collectively resigned in 2011, amidst the government-lead violence against demonstrators.

In advance of the 2014 parliamentary elections, the government re-drew constituency borders. A member of the al-Wefaq political group released a detailed report setting out the manner in which the government changed the numbers of voters in specific constituencies in order to increase the number of the seats that government supporters would be likely to win, decreasing the representation of the majority Shi’a community.[9]

After the government quelled the mass demonstrations, the security services sought to silence any further public dissent. They targeted numerous individuals for harassment and arbitrary arrest: in May 2012, they arbitrarily arrested the prominent human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab. Despite at least several months’ liberty at the end of 2014 and early 2015, and international calls for his release, the government continues to imprison him, a powerful symbol of the repression felt in Bahrain.[10]

Between 2012-2017, the government sought to whitewash its conduct through the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), but the government ignored even its substantive recommendations. The government also denied access to United Nations human rights experts and either deported or drastically limited the amount of time human rights advocates were able to spend in the country. They also prevented Bahraini activists from travelling to take part in human rights events.[11]

In 2016 the government dissolved al-Wefaq, the largest political group in Bahrain. The government asserted it fostered violence and terrorism, and liquidated its assets. In 2017, they then dissolved the National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), the largest liberal party, likewise asserting that its members also incited terrorism.

In terms of an independent media to hold the authorities to account, in 2017, the government closed Al-Wasat, the last independent media platform. As a result, voters must rely on highly restrictive and selective, government-controlled media that provides partial and biased information in favour of the authorities.

In June 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and post holders of UN human rights mechanisms condemned the government’s use of lethal force that killed at least five and injured dozens of others in the city of Duraz in order to quell a peaceful ‘sit-in’ demonstration. The official press release quoted them as saying that:[12]

“The authorities have resorted to drastic measures to curb dissenting opinions such as torture, arbitrary detention, unfounded convictions, the stripping of citizenship, the use of travel bans, intimidation, including death threats, and reprisals for cooperating with international organizations, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights” they noted.

“We are particularly worried about these measures, coupled with the campaign of harassment aimed at human rights defenders, who are increasingly being charged with offences for which the death penalty may be imposed,” the experts said, highlighting in this regard the use of repressive legislation, in particular the Law of Associations, and anti-terrorism laws.

Into 2018, the Bahraini authorities continued to harass people in areas associated with Shi’a unrest, such as by way of roadblocks and police checkpoints, limiting freedom of movement on the citing legal provisions relating to national security or public order. The government has also been shown to be using Israeli-sourced malware targeting Bahraini activists amongst a number of measures to silence online dissent.[13]

A legal framework that provides for fair elections?

The government weaponized laws and the administration of justice to further repression and disenfranchisement. They drew on new and existing provisions, some that criminalise acts which either are not recognizably criminal under international law or which constitute protected conduct – such as the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression – in order to silence dissent or opposition.

Article 178 of Bahrain’s Penal Code, for example expressly criminalises a gathering ‘of at least five people in a public place, the goal of which is to commit a crime or acts preparatory to or facilitating a crime or to infringe public security, even if done to achieve a legitimate end’.  This closed down public dissent.

On 10 June, Act 25/2018 entered into force, amending Act 14/2002, the Exercise of Political Rights Act and having a devastating impact on the recent election. It prohibits, permanently, ‘active leaders and members of dissolved political associations’ from standing in elections. Amnesty International has set out how this, too, is discriminatory[14]:

‘This law prevents al-Wefaq and Wa’ad, which are respectively the major religious and secular political opposition groups in Bahrain, from participating in parliamentary elections. Given that the majority of Bahrain’s population is Shi’a, and that al-Wefaq comprises the largest Shi’a opposition group in the country, the law will have a de facto discriminatory effect on Shi’as’ political participation.’

On 13 June 2018 European Parliament passed a joint resolution on the human rights situation in Bahrain, notably addressing the case of imprisoned human rights defender, the case of Nabeel Rajab, it stated that:

[…] the situation in Bahrain has become critical as regards freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly; whereas the increased crackdown on human rights defenders and peaceful opposition activists includes prison sentences, exile, travel bans, revocation of citizenships or severe threats and intimidation as a result of their peaceful work.’

With regard to the recent election, the resolution added:

‘[…] the Council of Representatives and the Shura Council of Bahrain have approved an amendment to the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights that will prevent independent political participation in the 2018 elections

Only weeks before the election, moreover, the government sent powerful messages – threats – to the island’s Shi’a electorate: on 4th November, an appeals court convicted the (former) leader of al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, to life imprisonment. Held since December 2014, the government charged him with spying for Qatar, in a case that arose as a result of an attempt made by Qatar in 2011 – prior to the current dispute between that country, Bahrain and others in the region – to mediate during Bahrain’s own strife.

On 13th November, the Office for Public Prosecution stated that it had monitored tweets, including those calling on people not to participate in the election. The government met such peaceful calls with arrest and prosecution: they summoned and interrogated one person thus charged: former MP, Ali Rashed al-Asheeri. They detained him for ‘transgressing against the vote and confusing the electoral process’. He had said that he had been banned from both standing and voting.

In contrast, on 15th November, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee, an independent body of experts charged with assessing states’ implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, issued its Concluding Observations on Bahrain’s first (10 years’ late) report on its implementation of this core international human rights treaty.[15] Addressing a wide range of issues, with respect to the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the Committee expressed its concern:

‘[…] about reports that the Shia population is underrepresented in political and public life, including in the National Assembly. It is also concerned that the opposition parties Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad have recently been dissolved and that their leaders and members have been prosecuted. In addition, the Committee is concerned about allegations of gerrymandering and voter fraud during elections. Despite the existence of the National Audit Office, in charge of investigating cases of public corruption, the Committee finds it regrettable that high-ranking officials suspected of corruption are rarely punished.’

The independent human rights experts called on the Bahraini government to review ‘decisions to dissolve opposition parties and ensure that political parties and their members are allowed to participate in political life’.

In October 2018, the Bahraini authorities announced plans to take ‘all security measures’ during the election period and warned NGOs not ‘to use their programs and activities to support candidates for legislative and local council as per the law’.

On 20th October, reports emerged that a number of people with applications for housing assistance were told that their applications would be rejected if they did not vote, or that they would be referred to the police’s criminal investigations department if they did not vote. These allegations of coercion went unnoticed by the officially charged monitoring bodies.[16]

The authorities have rejected the involvement of international observers in monitoring the electoral process, by limiting observers’ nationality to Bahrainis. Consequently, there is no guarantee of sound and impartial administration nor non-partisan observers of the electoral process of Bahrain.

Under the threat of intimidation and legalised repression, Bahraini voters were denied the opportunity of genuinely free and fair elections – despite the assurances of domestic ‘monitors’. The conduct of the election flies in the face of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 1994 Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections. While the outcome has been hailed in Bahrain and by its regional allies, the international community must be aware of the strictures under which the newly elected MPs will find themselves.

The value of democracy to the government of Bahrain

Once, in 2011, when Bahraini security officials were torturing former Bahraini MP, Jawad Fairooz, they asked why he spoke out against the government. He replied that he did so since he took an oath to uphold the interests of his constituents. For this they arrested and tortured him; then arbitrarily stripped him of his citizenship. [17]

By torturing him the Bahraini authorities rejected the inherent dignity of what it means to be human. He has never received an apology, let alone compensation.[18] He was an MP for the now banned (see below) al-Wefaq political organisation, now he cannot vote, let alone stand for election.

Moreover, Bahrain’s National Assembly consists of an upper chamber, the Consultative Council and the lower chamber, its parliament, or Council of Representatives. Each house consists of 40 representatives. The upper chamber is entirely appointed while the lower house is elected. As we have seen, it has been an election in which the opposition has been banned, even threatened over and the electoral districts have been gerrymandered. Even if it were fairer, legislation cannot originate from either house; at most, they can make suggestions for laws to the government and review whatever comes back. In order to question even a minister, the question must be submitted to a committee which determines the question’s legitimacy, and therefore, whether it can be put to the official.

Dr Abdulhadi Khalaf, Senior Lecturer in sociology at Sweden’s Lund university told the authors of this essay that “Bahrain’s National Assembly cannot introduce legislation; it cannot summon ministers. It has no effective power and cannot hold the government to account.”

This and the Jawad Fairooz case are shorthand for what the Bahraini government appears to really think of democracy and the rights of anyone save its own supporters. The only winner in this tawdry process is a government that has used sectarianism and division in Bahraini society to exert its control.

Round 2 and beyond

On 26th October 2018, Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (see above) wrote to Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service.[19] The organisation called on the EU ‘to publicly express the view, as soon as possible, that the general election scheduled for 24th November 2018 in Bahrain cannot and will not constitute free or fair elections, in terms of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 1994 Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections.’

Perhaps quixotically, Salam DHR called on the EU to urge the Bahraini authorities to:

  • Postpone the 24th November election pending changes in law that would facilitate free and fair elections;
  • End its persecution of political activists, including by releasing political prisoners, imprisoned for non-violent acts relating to the expression of their conscientiously held beliefs; and to
  • Enter into genuine dialogue with a view to achieving a national reconciliation and genuine power sharing.

On 31th October, an EEAS official replied to say that representatives had recently visited the island and that they conveyed to the authorities that they would closely monitor the elections. Facing the realpolitik of the situation, the official added that it is difficult to have leverage. And, needless to say, none of the recommendations appear to have been taken up.

Salam DHR’s recommendations are echoed, in part, by Brian Dooley’s recommendations for the United States. Some of his go farther, but they are equally applicable to the UK and the EU, that these governments should[20]:

  • Acknowledge that they were neither free nor fair;
  • Not endorse the election;
  • Not be pictured with officials connected to the election, and
  • Call for the release of political prisoners.

The international community must engage with the government of Bahrain to ensure, additionally, that all recommendations by UN treaty bodies should be acted upon in meaningful way; they should engage with the elected parliamentarians in order to ensure they understand the context in which they were elected and what they can do about it, not least in terms of the oath they will be take in the coming weeks.

Above all, the international community must engage with the government – relentlessly and in a coordinated fashion – so that they understand the impact and ramifications of longstanding and ongoing discriminatory laws and policies, not just in terms of administration of justice but in terms of access to jobs and services; and political representation, and how this reinforces sectarianism and intolerance, not just on the island but across the Gulf.

Hussain Abdalla, the Executive Director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), a US-based human right organisation, told the authors of this report that

“The government of Bahrain is mistaken if they think that this election has provided stability. Bahrain is a pressure cooker. It would be a false sense of security that they take from this manifestly unfair election. And the US and UK, who previously encouraged the now-crushed opposition to engage with the political process will be the first to regret their stance, if the pressure cooker cracks.”

Following elections that seem to be designed to deepen and embed division, the Bahraini government knows it has the power to end the dispute. Does it have the will to do so? Do the UK and US likewise have the capacity to take any meaningful action that might induce a change in the government’s conduct?

We will see.

[1] Peter Stubley, UK opens permanent military base in Bahrain to strengthen Middle East presence, Independent April 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/uk-bahrain-military-base-juffair-royal-navy-mina-salman-middle-east-hms-queen-elizabeth-a8291486.html

[2] See, for example: Foreign Policy Centre – Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Struggle to Shape the Middle East: https://fpc.org.uk/publications/saudi-arabia-and-iran/

[3]Bahrain News Agency, High levels of voter participation ensure 2018 elections build on the success of previous elections, November 2018,  https://bit.ly/2U4uXVd

[4] The New Arab – Polls close in Bahrain election marked by unfair ballot, November 2018, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2018/11/24/polls-close-in-bahrain-election-marked-by-unfair-ballot

[5] Gulf Daily News – Noor Zahra, Independents Big Winners after first round, Gulf Daily News Online, November 2018, http://www.gdnonline.com/Details/442780/BAHRAIN-POLLS-Independents-big-winners-after-first-round

[6] Bahrain Human Rights Watch – First Report of the Election Monitoring Centre, November 2018, via https://twitter.com/BHRWS/status/1066685247243341825

[7] Bahrain News Agency –  Election monitoring report on electoral process, November 2018, https://bit.ly/2Q8uOl1

[8] Amnesty International – Flawed Reforms – Bahrain Fails to Achieve Justice for Protester, 17 April 2012, Index number: MDE 11/014/2012; https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde11/014/2012/en/  – see pp 5-7

[9] Project on Middle East Democracy – Bahraini Opposition Party Releases Report Detailing Vote Re-Distribution Ahead of Elections, https://pomed.org/bahraini-opposition-party-releases-report-detailing-vote-re-distribution-ahead-of-elections/ see also Chatham House – Jane Kinninmont and Omar Sirri: Bahrain: Civil Society and Political Imagination, October 2014; https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/20141028BahrainKinninmontSirri.pdf

[10] Frontline Defenders: Case History – Nabeel Rajab; https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/case-history-nabeel-rajab

[11] Human Rights Watch – Bahrain: Events of 2017 (annual report); https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/bahrain

[12] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Bahrain must end worsening human rights clampdown, UN experts say, June 2017,  https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21762&LangID=E

[13]Bill Marczak, John Scott-Railton, Adam Senft, Bahr Abdul Razzak, and Ron Deibert, The Kingdom Came to Canada-

How Saudi-Linked Digital Espionage Reached Canadian Soil, October 2018, https://citizenlab.ca/2018/10/the-kingdom-came-to-canada-how-saudi-linked-digital-espionage-reached-canadian-soil/

[14] Amnesty International – Bahrain: Public Statement – Suppression of opposition ahead of Bahraini election, November 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE1194402018ENGLISH.pdf

[15] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Reporting status for Bahrain https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/TreatyBodyExternal/countries.aspx?CountryCode=BHR&Lang=EN

[16] Information via Ebtisam Alsaegh of Salam DHR https://twitter.com/ealsaegh/status/1064962148282105857

[17] Amnesty International, Released Bahraini politicians still under threat from government repression, August 2011, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2011/08/released-bahraini-politicians-still-under-threat-government-repression/

[18] Redress, Tortured and Exiled: Former Bahrain MP Jawad Fairooz, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuhr91SxVZk

[19] Salam’s website is here: https://www.salam-dhr.org/

[20] Project on Middle East Democracy – Brian Dooley, Policy Brief – No Applause for Bahrain’s Sham Election, November 2018, https://pomed.org/policy-brief-no-applause-for-bahrains-sham-election/

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