Bahrain: election without freedoms falls far short of democracy
Bahrain’s 12 November parliamentary election didn’t allow for the expression of any form of dissent: members of the opposition were banned from running and people continue to be denied the fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression that are needed to make elections meaningful. Twenty years after Bahrain held its first election, all promises of political reform remain unfulfilled, and those who dared hold rulers to this commitment have languished in prison for years. What little independent civil society survives in this hostile environment continues to struggle to open up any cracks in the system to allow political change.
On 12 November, Bahrain went through the motions of an election. It was the sixth to take place since the National Action Charter was adopted in 2001, supposedly kicking off a new, more democratic, phase where despite the country’s absolute monarchy there would be a stronger parliament with opposition voices. But once again held against the backdrop of a severe crackdown, the 2022 election has failed by design to produce a legislative body with any ability to counterbalance executive power.
On taking the throne in 1999, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa promised significant reforms, including the establishment of an elected parliament with actual legislative powers. Political prisoners were released, political parties – a rarity in the region – were allowed and hopeful exiled opposition members returned to Bahrain. Press freedoms increased: a former opposition politician, Mansoor al-Jamri, founded the Al-Wasat newspaper, which was often critical of the government.
But it didn’t take long for the King to walk back on his promises. The new constitution issued in 2002 established a National Assembly made up of two chambers: a 40-member elected Chamber of Deputies but also an upper chamber, the Consultative Council, comprising 40 members appointed by royal order. This unelected chamber was packed with government loyalists, giving the ruling Khalifa family a buffer against the lower chamber, whose ability to legislate and act as a watchdog was therefore severely curtailed.
As a further safeguard, voting districts for the election were gerrymandered so the opposition couldn’t get a majority. In response, several opposition parties, led by the prominent Al-Wefaq party, boycotted the 2002 election. Al-Wefaq reversed its decision four years later and went on to win 17 seats in 2006 and 18 in 2010. Although parliament had limited powers, the party thought it could use its presence to extract concessions from the government.
A history of protest and repression
The context changed decisively as the protest wave that swept the region reached Bahrain in February and March 2011. Protesters demanded fundamental democratic change, chanting ‘down with the King, down with the Khalifas’. Protesters were overwhelmingly Shia Muslim, a marginalised majority who according to most sources comprise around 70 per cent of the Bahraini population, and who feel consistently unrepresented by the Sunni royal family.
This sectarian divide plays into the region’s geopolitics. Iran’s support, including in the form of weapons, has increased the influence of Shia militias in Lebanon and Iraq, two countries over which the Iranian government holds considerable political sway. The Bahraini government manipulates Sunni people’s fear of Iran-led Shia oppression to keep the Sunni population on its side.
The government quickly cracked down on the 2011 protests. On the third day, 17 February, security forces violently cleared the Pearl Roundabout, the main protest site, killing several protesters. People subsequently gathered at the roundabout again but were again violently disbanded on 16 March, with the decisive help of Saudi Arabian and Emirati forces. The government declared martial law and arrested scores of protesters, activists and opposition leaders.
Al-Wefaq members of parliament resigned in protest at this repression in February 2011. When by-elections were held in September to fill their seats, most people refused to vote, as reflected in the 17 per cent turnout. The opposition also boycotted the following election, held in 2014.
The government then moved to suppress all political opposition. In July 2016 it dissolved Al-Wefaq, claiming it helped foster violence and terrorism. In May 2017, a court dissolved Wa’ad, a left-leaning opposition party, on similar charges. In July 2018, the King issued a decree that became known as the ‘political isolation law’, banning members of dissolved opposition parties from standing for election.
The government also limited the ability of civil society organisations to operate by using the political isolation law to control the appointment of their board members, restricting their ability to accept foreign funding and monitoring their activities. The Bahraini Society for Human Rights, the country’s oldest human rights organisation, recently had some board nominees vetoed due to their past membership of Wa’ad.
Additionally, the government has increasingly resorted to the tactic of stripping activists and their families of citizenship rights to exclude them from the political process. Hundreds have been deprived of their nationality and effectively left stateless since 2012. A general amnesty reinstated the citizenship of over 500 people in April 2019, but prominent opposition figures and activists were left off the list.
A prison state
Many of those arrested in the 2011 protests and subsequent crackdown on dissent remain behind bars. According to estimates by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, over the past decade the government has arrested almost 15,000 people for their political views. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy calculates that at least 1,400 remain in jail to this day.
Among them are Sheikh Ali Salman, former secretary general of Al-Wefaq, in prison since his 2014 arrest, and prominent human rights activist Abdul-hadi Al-Khawaja, subjected to a sham trial by a military court and handed a life sentence that has kept him behind bars for more than 10 years.
Since 2011, the government has sentenced 51 people to death. It has so far executed six, while 26 wait on death row having exhausted their appeals. Most were convicted on the basis of confessions obtained under torture.
A sham election
As a result of the political isolation law, between 6,000 to 11,000 people were unable to run in the November 2022 election. Still, over 500 candidates stood, a 20-per cent increase compared to 2018. With the opposition banned from taking part in the process, it was guaranteed that the resulting Chamber of Deputies would be packed with government loyalists.
Ahead of the vote, six opposition groups led by Al-Wefaq, which continues to work informally, called for a voter boycott, arguing that no progress toward reform had been made during a decade and the election would fail to provide true representation in decision-making. That’s why the government made a point of announcing a record 73 per cent turnout: if people trusted the numbers, they would conclude that the boycott call failed miserably.
But there was a caveat: the government had previously removed from the electoral roll all voters who boycotted previous elections. As a result the number of eligible voters decreased from 365,000 in 2018 to under 345,000 in 2022 – when due to population growth, it should have increased. This helped make sure a 2022 boycott wouldn’t be reflected in the turnout.
Voices from the frontline
Jawad Fairooz is a former Bahraini parliamentarian, a member of Al-Wefaq and the founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights. He was detained and tortured in 2011 and in 2012 stripped of his citizenship.
Elections matter, or at least they should. Between 2002 and 2010, elections in Bahrain were carried out in a context where civil society had become relatively more vibrant. They continued – even if only just – to carry the promise that parliament would take an increasingly larger and more responsible role in deepening democracy and freedoms and ensuring the continuing existence of civil society.
But that is not the case with the 2022 election. This one reflects an ever-shrinking civic space. Parliamentarians’ institutional power has weakened, as they too operate under limited civic space. The government is inclined to seek less qualified parliamentarians whose conduct it will be able to control. To further weaken and subordinate parliament to the government’s will, the King recently issued a decree giving more power to parliament’s chair, a government loyalist, to determine the body’s workings. This will further extend government writ and further chill civic space.
This election, like those of 2014 and 2018, is controlled or stage managed in a way that makes it clear that its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy. It’s make-believe.
But let’s be clear: it is also an opportunity for us to get back to work on our own renewal, to locate openings and fissures and pry them open, and to chip away at walls enclosing us, in Bahrain, in the Gulf and across the region. An opportunity to look forward.
Flaws notwithstanding, we need to engage with the new parliamentarians. Will the government let them engage with independent civil society? It looks unlikely, but we will try, both through bilateral parliamentary visits and in the context of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s General Assembly, which will be held in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023. We also need to plant the seeds for civil society activism around COP28, which will take place a year from now in neighbouring United Arab Emirates, where civic space is non-existent.
We just can’t stop now, however bleak the situation of Bahrain or the Gulf may seem. This cycle of unfair elections is done, but our task to continue to look for avenues of engagement and activism continues apace.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Jawad. Read the full interview here.
Wanted: international pressure
Aware that details of its repression could stain its international reputation, the Bahraini government has for years engaged in whitewashing efforts.
In June 2011, the King formed an independent commission of inquiry and appointed an international human rights expert, M Cherif Bassiouni, as its head. The commission spent months investigating the human rights violations committed by security forces during the crackdown on protests. In November 2011 it issued a damning report documenting grave human rights abuses, including killings, assault, torture and mass arrests, and called on the government to reform its security apparatus. But a full decade on, no such reform has materialised.
As a small country in a contested region, Bahrain relies heavily on its foreign alliances. While it can expect no pressure to respect human rights from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, the government is sensitive to international criticism from other quarters, as indicated by its repression of those expressing dissent on social media and international forums alike.
The government was strung by the backlash from human rights organisations that earlier this year exposed its appalling human rights record and forced it to withdraw its candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Democratic states, particularly the UK and the USA, could use this sensitivity as a lever – so why don’t they?
The UK government has continued to back the institutions that, as the former colonial power, it originally established in Bahrain, being prepared to take the government’s assurances that abuses are being dealt with at face value even though it’s clear nothing has really changed.
As for the USA, its position towards Bahrain has been inconsistent, shifting with the USA’s changes at the top, but it has ultimately focused on its defence partnership, with its naval base in Bahrain one of its most important in the region.
Under Democratic Party administrations, the USA has sometimes expressed human rights concerns, but it hasn’t backed its words with actions. Under the Trump presidency, it completely let go of the rhetorical niceties and gave its full support to the Bahraini government, which correspondingly felt free to deepen its repression. President Joe Biden promised a foreign policy centred around human rights, but this has so far made little difference when it comes to Bahrain.
It’s time democratic states exerted more pressure so that the government of Bahrain retraces the backward steps it has taken over the past decade, reverses its repression and lets its thousands of political prisoners free. If it wants to fix its damaged reputation and project an image of being a progressive, democratic and inclusive state, it needs to start acting like one.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Bahraini government must reverse its strategy of political isolation, release all political prisoners and implement the independent commission’s recommendations on security reform.
The Bahraini government must allow civil society organisations to operate without constraints.
Democratic states should refuse to take Bahrain’s whitewashing attempts at face value and instead use the levers at their disposal to push for real reform.
Cover photo by Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed via Gallo Images