Polls apart in Bahrain

Bahrain's ruling family is holding parliamentary and local government elections today but they are unlikely to do anything to resolve the kingdom's political crisis.

The main opposition group, al-Wefaq, is boycotting the polls, along with several other groups – mainly on the grounds that the 40-seat parliament has too little power and that electoral districts have been adjusted to favour the Sunni minority (to which the ruling family belong).

There are also calls for replacement of the prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in office for a scarcely-believable 43 years and happens to be the king's uncle.

The government has responded to the boycott by threatening unspecified punishments for Bahrainis who fail to vote. A cleric from Saudi Arabia – of all places – has been roped-in to tell Bahrainis that voting is a "religious and national" duty (see advertisement below):

For background on the elections, Jane Kinninmont's paper for the Project on Middle East Democracy is well worth reading. Here are its key points:

• A failure to institute reforms has led Bahrain’s main opposition groups to boycott upcoming elections, undercutting the legitimacy of a parliament that, in any case, has little power.

• The Bahraini government has unleashed another crackdown on activists, shutting down the space for opposition in the lead up to the election.

• The ongoing repression of peaceful opposition increases the potential for violent groups to exploit widespread disillusionment and take the lead in opposing the government.

• The government’s use of sectarian rhetoric to discredit the Shia opposition has also created fertile ground for the growth of Sunni extremism.

• The US should speak out against the imprisonment of peaceful activists, which adds to long-term security risks, and should be flagged in the important bilateral dialogue by defence officials as well as by diplomats.

I might add that the last point also applies to the British government which has even more cosy relations with Bahrain than the US.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 22 November 2014