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The Bahraini Elections: Opening Up Progressively

It is an election season in the Middle East; Jordan would be going for polls on 9 November and Egypt would hold Parliamentary elections on 28 November, a run-up to the Presidential election in 2011. In October, Bahrain conducted its third Parliamentary elections since the reinstatement of parliamentary system in 2002 as part of reform process initiated by King Hamad Ibn Isa Al Khalifa.

The Bahraini election was closely watched by international observers for a number of reasons. Located in the Persian Gulf region, Bahrain is a Shia majority state ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa family since the 18th century. It hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is seen as a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Since 2002, Bahrain is a constitutional Monarchy with a bicameral legislature. The lower house, the Chamber of Deputies or Nuwab Council, is elected by universal suffrage and the upper house, the Consultative Chamber or the Shura Council, is appointed by the King. Each house has 40 members. The legislation passed by the popularly elected lower house can be blocked by the appointed upper house.

Political parties are banned in Bahrain. Instead, there are registered political societies or association that participate in the elections. The prominent political societies in 2010 elections were Al-Wefaq (Shia Islamists), Al-Asalah (Salafi Islamists), and Al- Menbar Islamic Society (Sunni Islamists) and the Waad Society (with a leftist approach). Several independents also participated in the elections. However, these elections saw a fair share of boycotts by some of the groups. Opposition groups such as Al-Wafa Islamic Movement, Haq Movement, Bahrain Freedom Movement and Islamic Action Society boycotted the elections due their opposition to slow phase of reforms.

A total of 147 candidates were in fray for 40 constituencies. The elections took place in two rounds, the first on October 23 and the second on October 30. The second round was necessitated as none of the candidates received the mandatory 50 percent of votes in nine constituencies. Overall, voter turnout was 67.7 percent. These elections were monitored by 292 observers from non-governmental organisations but foreign observers were not allowed.

The election results saw the Isalmists in firm control as candidates with socialist and secular orientation were unable to register victory. The main opposition Shia group, Al-Wefaq (Islamic National Accord Association) led by Sheikh Ali Salman emerged as the largest bloc. In the previous elections, Al-Wefaq had won 16 out of its 17 seats. This time around, it won all the 18 seats it had contest in the first round itself. The Sunni groups such as Al-Asalah and Al- Menbar lost their ground, winning only three and two seats respectively; in the outgoing parliament they had a combined strength of 13. The independents continued their impressive show with 17 seats as against just four seats in the 2006 elections.

The Bahraini Constitution Provides for the participation of women both as candidates and voters. However, the 2010 elections did not see a marked change and only Latifa Al Gaoud, the first woman to make it to parliament in 2006, was re-elected again this year un-opposed. The defeat of academic and activist Muneera Fakhro showed that the Bahraini electoral system is not yet ready to accommodate critics of the ruling establishment. However, in the Municipal elections that took place simultaneously, independent candidate Fatima Salman secured victory in second round of voting over her male opponent Mohammed Abdulla Al-Senan. She is the first woman to be directly elected to public office since Bahrain’s parliament and five municipal councils were formed in 2002.

In the regional context, Saudi Arabia and Iran had evinced interest in the electoral outcomes. Saudi Arabia is wary of any unrest in its Shia population that resides in the oil rich region and with the strengthening of Shia groups in Iraq it would be a blow if Bahrain also goes that way. The mood in Iran can be gauged by the election reporting of government controlled media which relentlessly highlighted the abuses and boycotts during the elections. Its election analysis depicted the electoral results a blow to the domination of Sunni groups in the parliament.

The new Cabinet announced by the King is virtually a continuation of the previous one. A majority of Cabinet members including the Prime Minister are from the Al-Khalifa family. These appointments are not under the purview of parliamentary scrutiny. Despite its electoral gains and majority share in the population the Shias have not been given adequate representation in the cabinet. This indicates that the ruling establishment is not ready to loosen its control and share power. The failure of electoral gains in bringing out any substantial change might lead the disenchanted groups to take radical steps which might not augur well for the stability of this gulf country.

Despite the electoral gains the representation in the lower house might not be sufficient for the Shia groups to push forward their agenda. The weak position of the elected house vis-à-vis the appointed upper house means that the Shia groups would have to further wait to gain any significant say in the policymaking and governance. At the same time, with 17 independents and 18 Al-Wefaq legislators, the traditional dominance of Sunni groups seems to be all but over.

The elections, though an important process, serve the purpose of showcasing Bahrain’s token commitment to democracy and telling the outside world, especially the US that democracy is flourishing. With a voter turnout higher than many western countries Bahrain might counter the pressure for further democratic reforms from the west. In the words of Shadi Hamid, Director of Research of Brookings Doha Center, elections in Bahrain ‘reflected a new and troubling trend in the Arab world: the free but unfair –and rather meaningless—election.’

Bahrain’s elected parliament is the only one in the Gulf Arab region besides Kuwait’s assembly. The Kuwaiti experience has been acrimonious in the recent past, if the Shia groups led by Al-Wefaq choose to assert themselves it would be a mighty challenge for the ruling establishment. The path that Bahrain chooses in those circumstances would have a bearing on the stability and promotion of democracy in the region.

Anjani Kumar Singh is a Doctoral candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Email: 



As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy