As Bahrain’s newly elected parliament convened for the first time last week, the island nation stands divided. The Shi’a-dominated opposition boycotted last month’s elections and will be outside the political system for the foreseeable future, leaving little prospect for the community’s political advancement. Meanwhile, the predominantly Sunni electorate participated strongly in the polls and will move forward alone on a series of reforms and priorities that are most important to their community.
In other words, half of Bahrain is progressing politically while the other half remains frozen in place. This growing—and now essentially codified—split may increase social tensions and exacerbate the long-standing structural issues that led to the initial political crisis.
The Sunni community is more politically aware and empowered than they were four years ago, when a Shi’a-dominated opposition took to the streets in Arab Spring-inspired protests. Loyalists’ demands for better government services, more transparency in government, and a more accountable parliament will become the political priorities for the next four years—with potentially large political and economic dividends for the community.
The Shi’i community, meanwhile, remains politically disenfranchised and subject to strict policing. Its members frequently report economic discrimination for public jobs. But because the opposition, led by the officially registered political society al-Wefaq, chose to boycott the elections, neither the government nor the international community will see an immediate reason to push for political concessions.
November’s election was the first full parliamentary vote since opposition MPs resigned en masse in 2011, in protest of a crackdown against the Arab Spring-inspired protests that drew tens of thousands to the streets.
In the years since, Bahrain has struggled to overcome the crisis. The country’s crown prince spearheaded several attempts to hold a national dialogue that included opposition members, loyalists, and independents. But each fell short of a full consensus. Meanwhile, small-scale protests have continued in Bahrain’s Shi’a-majority villages, often devolving into clashes with security forces. According to activists, an estimated 3,000 prisoners are now being held in relation to the unrest and as many as 150 have died. Meanwhile, for the last 18 months, radical elements of the opposition have begun deploying rudimentary bombs and other explosives in retaliation. A handful of incidents have led to casualties, including most recently the death of a Jordanian police officer on December 8. The officer had been part of a security cooperation agreement between the two governments.
In this context, both the Bahraini government and the international community saw the parliamentary vote as a benchmark that could bring the opposition back into the political system and turn the page on the last four years. Diplomats campaigned aggressively for the opposition to participate in the polls. Despite ongoing concerns about human rights, they argued that being in parliament was vital for the opposition’s ability to work for reform.
“We and other international partners were very disappointed that Wefaq didn’t take part,” said a Western diplomatic source. “We thought that was a bad move and we all tried very hard to persuade them that it made sense to participate.”
The early signs for electoral participation were not promising. But in early January 2014, figures from Wefaq held a “frank and transparent” meeting with the country’s crown prince that the group hoped would re-open talks and yield some progress. Prince Salman bin Isa al-Khalifa solicited proposals from the opposition, as well as from non-opposition political societies, from which the Royal Court would put together a proposed agenda for a new national dialogue.
Some nine months later, Wefaq says it felt blindsided when the crown prince announced a series of proposed political reforms said to be the “common ground” between the various sides. Although short on details, the proposals did include nods to at least some of the opposition’s key demands, such as electoral redistricting, a more empowered parliament, judicial independence, and some security sector reform.
Still, Wefaq said it had not been consulted since the spring and felt the proposals were unilateral. “We didn’t know that negotiations were over,” said Abdul Jalil Khalil Ebrahim, former head of Wefaq’s parliamentary bloc. The bloc decided to boycott the polls, arguing that the elections would do little to heal political rifts.
According to some analysts in Bahrain, this decision stirred debate within the opposition, with certain parts of Wefaq seeking to participate while others remaining opposed. One candidate from the party ranks did register, though he later withdrew, and Ebrahim denied that the issue had caused any fractures.
By the time the election took place, the opposition did appear to coalesce around the boycott. Turnout in the two strongest opposition districts fell below 10 percent. While the majority likely boycotted by choice, there were also reports of intense community pressure deterring any hopeful voters from the polls. …
Continue reading at the Middle East Institute. Republished with permission from the Middle East Institute.
Elizabeth Dickinson is a journalist based in the Arabian Peninsula. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker,Foreign Policy, The Economist, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, andThe Financial Times, among others. Currently Middle East editor and correspondent for Monitor Global Outlook, a start up of the Christian Science Monitor, she is a former Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent for The Economist.