Ali Al-Aswad: Why Have Bahraini Elections Come to This?

Ali AlAswad - 2022-11-06 - 4:25 م

Bahrain's issue with parliamentary popular representation is not outdated. We are not talking about centuries, but rather 51 years full of confrontation, challenge, turmoil, monopoly of power and injustice.

Bahrain has experienced years of hardships. The constant battle since the 1971 independence has had three demands agreed upon by the people of the country: obtaining rights, participating in the decision-making process, and achieving justice. It was the indigenous people who exerted efforts to reach these aims.

Bahrain's story with real popular representation is not that old. The many details of this issue were experienced by those who founded the first constitution of the Gulf Kingdom after British colonialism and those who lived in times that did not know good fortune.

Following its independence, political life in Bahrain began to gradually become clear. The Gulf state at the time had to enjoy a real constitution that governs its rule. At the time, Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa was the country's Emir. He ordered the formation of a Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the constitution to become the first contractual constitution to regulate governance in Bahrain. Here, the name of Sheikh Isa Ahmed Qassim shone in the elections of the said Council and won the highest votes, becoming one of the advanced figures who participated in writing the constitution, which was later, and to this day, considered the legitimate contractual constitution, popularly without objection.

Following this, the country experienced its first parliamentary elections; an significant step in the Gulf, but it did not last. Two years later, constitutional life was disrupted, following a conflict between the government and the parliament, which led Emir Isa to dissolve the House of Representatives. The country entered 30 years of security-obsessed rule, where human rights were crushed, and the language of massacres and repression prevailed. In addition to that, Social and cultural institutions were shut down, doors to freedom of religious practice were closed, and political activities were held in secret.

The period of internal repression coincided with the emergence of Islamist and leftist parties, most of which were active secretly and abroad, while a large portion of Bahrainis were languishing behind bars.

1994 came along and the Uprising of Dignity erupted, during which Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, who had been known for his political struggle shortly after returning from Iran, was arrested. Sheikh Salman raised a slogan which he turned into a constant principle in his career: the return and revitalization of political life, but the authorities at the time did not listen, and chose violence instead.

The authorities detained Sheikh Ali Salman, and the situation deteriorated. 8,000 Bahrainis were thrown in prisons for the sole reason that the regime wanted that. The situation continued as is until the Emir's death in 1999.

With the demise of Emir Isa, Bahrain was not liberated from brutality. Some thought that the lean years were gone irrevocably with Hamad bin Isa taking office; however, a dark tunnel was waiting ahead for Bahrainis.

At the beginning, the new king was quick to declare good faith, announcing that he would activate political life, so he put forward the National Action Charter as a first step, before voting on it based on a referendum. The political prisoners were released and the atmosphere calmed down. The charter won great unanimity, and was considered a turning point toward new political life.

Nonetheless, the scene changed after one year, as the king decided to replace the charter with a new, non-consensual constitution, which disregarded everyone in the country. He did not share his decision with any of the political components, becoming the head of the three powers: executive, legislative and judicial.

2002 was a new memorable date for Bahrainis with parliamentary elections held amid a serious political crisis. The opposition decided not to stand idly by, despite the boycott of the electoral process, due to its principled stance regarding the constitution, which was imposed by force. Therefore, the opposition limited its participation to the municipal elections as a tribute to the people, not the regime, and to be able to serve them in their areas. At the time, the results showed that the opposition won 60% of the municipal councils seats, 5 for the opposition and 2 for the regime.

Things didn't remain the same. Faced with the opposition's popular representation, the regime was forced to submit. In 2005, it was agreed that the opposition would enter the parliament in exchange for constitutional reforms and amendments at the constituency level and to further open up political life.

Consequently, the opposition participated in the 2006 elections and won 45% of the parliamentary seats, but in actuality it won 65% of the votes despite the fact that the distribution of constituencies was not fair or proportional to the seats. 

The opposition exerted a tremendous effort at this stage, despite all the obstacles that have been put in its way by the authorities, to express in deed rather than word its national program. 

The opposition worked on several priorities at the time: housing services, unemployment, salaries, political freedoms, trade unions, and the criminalization of normalization, which managed to obtain 39 votes out of 40 in the parliament, but the king's dominance prevented its formal approval.

In 2010, the opposition re-participated in parliamentary elections with other political forces, but the scene quickly changed. In 2011, specifically in February, the people took to the streets and revolted against the ruling tyrannical power. Peacefulness has been met with killings, torture and violence. As a result, the Al-Wefaq parliamentary bloc responded through the resignation of its 18 members from the House of Representatives.

The regime's attitude did not come close to the opposition's rhetoric. It remained stubborn and insisted on not meeting any popular demand. The regime failed to let go of its arrogance, and rather inflicted more tyranny. Therefore, Sheikh Ali Salman called on the people not to take part in the 2014 elections, and indeed, his call received a great response that led to a remarkable decrease in the percentage of voters.

The most noteworthy disaster caused by the 2014 parliament, which the opposition was not part of, was the introduction of a 5% value-added tax for the first time in the country.

In 2018, the opposition also boycotted the elections, since it hadn't seen a single change in the regime's performance. The House of Representatives, which lacks popular legitimacy, raised the tax to 10% under the pretext of the deteriorating economic situation. The parliament also amended the retirement law to the detriment of citizens, approved the lifting of subsidies in many sectors vital to the people, especially the electricity sector, narrowed spaces for freedom of expression, and prevented the questioning of any minister.

The harshest consequence was normalization. The "Puppet Council" as Bahrainis called it, did not show any opposing stance regarding this plot, although Bahrain's constitution states that any strategic agreement must pass through the council. However, this did not take place.

Within 20 years, the Parliament has turned into an institution that confronts people with threats to their livelihoods, freedoms and businesses. If yesterday's experience was so bitter, what would the next round be like? Everyone agrees that the next round will be the worst. The people are aware that the regime's promises of change are not true, as Bahrainis continue to chant: "No trust, no allegiance, no obedience!" "Boycotting is an inherent right and voting means more steps backward, more decline and collapsing."

Ali Al-Aswad - Former Bahraini MP and Al-Wefaq official

Translated by Bahrain Mirror

Original Article