The double whammy of low oil prices and the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown in the Gulf Arab states has forced governments to deal with a changing labor market.
Bahrain’s parliamentary and municipal elections – undertaken in two rounds November 24 and December 1 – took place under tightly managed conditions including the dissolution of the kingdom’s once formidable political opposition. Members of these political societies, including the Shia Islamist al-Wefaq and secular Waad, were banned from running for office; the secretary general of al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, was sentenced to life in prison on the eve of the election. They also took place under conditions of economic uncertainty, as Bahrain’s debt-ridden government looks set to impose greater cost-saving measures on a public already adjusting to austerity measures.
In the absence of the opposition societies, Bahrain’s political leadership is reshaping the role of the lower house of Parliament, looking more to a politics of representation than representative politics. This involves structuring elections and curating candidates to yield a Parliament curbing Sunni and Shia Islamist movements and containing economic grievances while providing representational opportunities to women and youth. The lead story out of Bahrain is sure to be the successful campaign of six women, double the number in the previous Parliament. Well-known youth and media figures were also elected. More stunning however, is the incredible turnover in the chamber: Only three incumbents will return to the 40-member body and the entire leadership declined to run. It will also be populated by political independents – an outcome dictated by the abolition of the dominant opposition political societies, alongside rules and redistricting unfavorable to Sunni Islamist movements, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, which, for the first time since the Parliament was reinstated in 2001, will not have a single representative.
On the whole, the exclusion of the opposition, inexperience of parliamentarians, and absence of cohesive movements in favor of “independents” should leave this Parliament easy to manage as the ruling family-led government presses measures imposed by the terms of a financial bailout agreed to by Bahrain’s neighbors.
The End of the Opposition Experiment
This election is the second vote for the full Parliament since the political uprising of 2011, which marked the end of Bahrain’s experimental pact in political inclusion. During that period, starting at the beginning of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s reign, there was a return of political exiles and newly formed opposition societies were integrated into reinstated civic and political institutions. At its height in 2006 to 2011, al-Wefaq held the largest bloc in Parliament, control of many municipal councils including in the capital, Manama, and leadership of the country’s labor union.
Since 2011, thousands of members of the opposition have been jailed or once again exiled and hundreds have had their citizenship revoked, including Bahrain’s top Shia cleric. Some members of the opposition have resorted to violent resistance. In July, the U.S. government formally designated the small al-Ashtar Brigades as a terrorist group backed by Iran, while in September the Bahraini government charged a rather disparate group of 169 Bahrainis with forming a “Bahrain Hezbollah.” The political space for both the Shia Islamist and aligned secular opposition has been closed since 2016 when the Bahraini government dissolved al-Wefaq and Waad, and further barred their members from running for election. The Manama municipal council is now appointed, not elected. And on the eve of the current election, Salman, al-Wefaq’s secretary general, was sentenced to life in prison on charges stemming from contacts made with Qatar during the 2011 uprising.
Parliamentary life today looks quite different than in that period when al-Wefaq used its limited powers to press for greater accountability and the empowerment of Bahrain’s elected institutions. The 2014-18 Parliament, elected under an opposition boycott, was overwhelmingly loyalist with a high percentage of political novices. The government advanced its programs with the support of a large “National Participation” parliamentary bloc, which wore as a badge of honor its commitment to eschew politics in favor of national unity. Yet even with this favorable parliamentary coalition and the ability of the appointed Shura Council to block the elected council’s legislation, the government still resorted to rule changes to counter the attempts of some members to exercise government oversight.
Bahrain and its Parliament Face Austerity
The low oil price environment and the need to transition away from reliance on government employment and popular subsidies have hit Bahrain much harder than its wealthier neighbors. Over the past several years, Bahrain has cut fuel and food subsidies while increasing fees and taxes. Despite these moves, the government is still facing a fiscal crisis as public debt has ballooned to 89 percent of gross domestic product in 2018.
In October, Bahrain received promises of a critical injection of $10 billion in aid from neighboring Gulf countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. This stabilization agreement, known as the Fiscal Balance Program, was negotiated alongside commitments from Bahrain to further cut costs and increase revenue. To achieve this, the government leaned hard on the Parliament, calling it into an extraordinary session on October 9 to pass the unified Gulf Cooperation Council value-added tax, as well as pension reform.
The steps taken to pass these measures in the face of popular opposition demonstrate the severity of the challenge facing the government, even with a pliable Parliament. The government’s proposal to establish an independent body empowered to unilaterally decide citizen pensions was rejected by the Parliament as unconstitutional in June. Similarly, the Financial and Economic Affairs Committee recommended rejecting passage of the value-added tax law, then changed its position that same day after a meeting with the speaker of the parliament. Both measures were passed in a secret session, which ended quickly without discussion and without an announcement of the votes.
Dissatisfaction with the performance of the Parliament and its inability to effectively impact economic measures were clearly on the mind of the electorate. The coming parliamentary session will present a slew of difficult economic decisions involving pensions and early retirement, health insurance, and other measures likely to weigh upon the population. It was these bread and butter issues that animated many political campaigns and informed the willingness of the electorate to punish incumbents.
Boycotting the elections was not a welcome political response. The minister of interior threatened to refer those calling for nonparticipation to public prosecution, making good on his pledge by arresting a former parliamentarian who declared his intent to boycott the election on Twitter. Days before the election, the speaker of the Council of Representatives caused confusion in the public by praising a government decision to hold citizens who do not participate in the elections accountable by delaying their applications for housing and early retirement, leaning on those critical economic benefits to keep the public politically engaged. In the end, the government announced a very high 67 percent participation rate in the first round of voting, a figure difficult to confirm given the existence of general voting sites and absence of international monitors. The number was disputed by the head of the opposition living in exile in Beirut, though the source of his figure was not provided and thus impossible to verify.
Women and Independents Dominate a Parliament of Political Novices
Political retirement, whether voluntary or forced by the government and electorate, has left the new Parliament bereft of experienced legislators. Stunningly, only three incumbents from the 2014 Parliament will be returning. Nearly 50 percent of standing members chose not to run or had their candidacy rejected by the government. Most of those who did compete were defeated. Significantly, neither the speaker of the parliament nor his two deputies chose to stand in elections, meaning there will be an entirely new leadership.
Among those suffering defeat were members of Bahrain’s already embattled political societies. This continues a trend, encouraged by the government, of political representation by “independents” – members uncommitted to political ideologies or political collectives. The dissolution of al-Wefaq has been echoed by redistricting to the disadvantage of Sunni Islamist political societies. A law banning preachers from serving in Parliament likewise undercuts some Shia and Sunni Islamists. In this election, the Salafi Al Asalah political society performed rather well, placing three of its six candidates and picking up one seat. A loyalist Sunni political society established at the time of the 2011 uprising, the National Unity Assembly, also won its first seat in Parliament. By contrast, the once strong Muslim Brotherhood-backed Al Menbar Islamic Society lost both of its seats, meaning that for the first time since the re-establishment of the Parliament it will not be represented. This result will likely be welcomed by the government, which is under pressure from allies in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to limit Brotherhood activities.
The space opened by excluded or faltering Shia and Sunni Islamist political societies created room for new faces: leftists, women, and youth. Bucking the popular sentiment against political societies, the leftist Progressive Democratic Tribute society had two members elected, including its leader, former parliamentarian Abdelnabi Salman. This movement, operating largely in districts once dominated by Bahrain’s Shia opposition, chose to end its boycott of elections back in 2014.
A record six women – all newcomers – were elected to the Parliament, doubling their representation from the last session. Their success may be greater still: One member, Fawzia Zainal, has declared her intent to compete for the speakership. Her success is quite possible, given the government’s desire to place women in more prominent positions, and the current opening in the speaker’s post. The Parliament will likewise welcome several youth candidates, some making their name in media, others making their way to the Parliament after starting careers in the municipal councils.
A Useful Political Buffer
The 2018 parliamentary elections consolidated a number of trends begun in Bahrain in 2014: the elimination or decline of Islamist political societies that dominated the Parliament in the early 2000s; encouragement of women and youth, though certainly not of an oppositional bent; and the promotion of national unity over national debate. The political suppression of part of the public has been accompanied by the endorsement of new faces. In this, Bahrain’s new politics are beginning to look more like the representational politics pursued by its benefactors in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, and less like the more disordered parliamentary give and take of Kuwait.
These results will be welcomed by the ruling family, which has dispatched the demands of an opposition seeking greater political power and accountability and is looking to move beyond the openly sectarian politics it unleashed. The turnover of representatives – and turnout by a disgruntled public – will allow a limited conduit for public grievance and accountability while serving as an excellent political buffer for a royal family-led government pressing greater economic austerity.
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