Nineteen days ago Bahrain held its first parliamentary election since 2011. The government claimed a voter turnout of 51%, the same figure it announced after the 2011 elections. In actuality, in 2011, only 17% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the districts that were contested. That same year, Arab Spring-inspired protests shook the ruling Al Khalifa regime, which crushed the largely peaceful movement with military assistance from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Of the four elections held since 2002, the opposition has boycotted three, largely in protest against what is sees as a rigged electoral game. In 2006, the year in which the main opposition party, al-Wefaq, took part in elections, it won just 18 out of 40 seats in parliament’s lower house. Conveniently, this was less than the majority it would have needed to pass needed reforms. Al-Wefaq is considered a “Shia” party – the Shia make up between 50-60% of Bahrain’s population (although nobody can say for sure, since the government refuses to do a religious census) and are marginalized by the ruling Sunni minority.
As reflected in the recent vote, Bahrain’s so-called parliamentary democracy is plagued by legal infirmities and rampant corruption. Among its primary demands, the opposition has called for a redrawing of voting districts – largely criticized for privileging pro-government votes over those cast by opposition supporters – so that the allocation of seats reflect the proportion of votes. Right now, each of Bahrain’s forty electoral districts gets one parliamentary representative, regardless of size. Under Bahraini law, parliament is also effectively under the monarchy’s control. Parliament’s forty-member upper house, the Shura Council, is appointed directly by the King and holds absolute veto power over laws introduced by the lower, elected house.
Recently the regime and the opposition have gone back and forth over measures to remedy the country’s electoral infirmities. While these reforms are a necessary and critical step, they appear to be a far-off prospect in Bahrain.
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