Alessia Caizzone: Bahrain, Be Careful What You Call Democracy

Alessia Caizzone - 2018-11-24 - 5:22 am

The basic definition of democracy suggests that such a regime has at least universal, adult suffrage; recurring, free, competitive and fair elections; more than one political party; and more than one source of information. This statement proves that Bahrain is a fake-democracy. It can certainly be said that the small Gulf kingdom doesn't respect any of these basic features of a democratic country.

Bahrain has only been around for six electoral periods, if we consider also the upcoming elections for the lower house of parliament that will be held this year on 24 November. The first elections were held in 1973, then 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018.

In 1973, after Bahrain gained independence from the United Kingdom, the country went through its first elections. At that time, both Sunni and Shia ran together in the parliamentary elections. But pretty soon the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family began to spread an anti-Shia sectarian rhetoric meant to break up what was once a peaceful partnership. They targeted the Shia majority population with increased discrimination within the workplace, education and social security systems. Additionally the Bahraini government diluted the influence of the Shia through electoral district gerrymandering. The regime went further in its attempts to limit Shia participation - revoking citizenship for purposes of demographic engineering while allowing expedited citizenship for foreign Sunnis. They recognized that cross-sectarian civic or political cooperation was the biggest internal threat to regime survival.

Before the 1973 elections, the former ruler Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa issued a decree for the election of a Constituent Assembly to draft and ratify a Constitution, which was soon after abrogated and consequently the country was governed under emergency laws from 1975 to 2002.

In the 1990s Bahraini citizens took to the streets to demand democracy. The protests ended with the start of a period of democratic reforms promised by Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. In 2001, the National Action Charter was put forward, so as to return the country to constitutional rule. The opposition asked for an amendment to the 1973 Constitution, changing the legislature from unicameral to bicameral. The king ensured that only the elected lower house of the parliament would have legislative power, while the appointed upper house would have a strictly advisory role. Despite this, the further Constitution, promulgated in 2002 claimed equal legislative power for both the elected and the royally-appointed chambers of parliament. Given this unfair process, a group of four political societies, Al Wefaq, Al Amal, Tajamor al Qawmi and Al Amal al Islami boycotted the 2002, and later the 2014, elections. The Al Khalifa family cracked down on the political societies and accused them of promoting violence once members withdrew from Parliament in protest.

Since 2011, the situation in Bahrain has worsened. Bahrain still behaves like a democratic state, holding regular elections, but currently a major point of concern is the completely lack of elections that are free and fair. It is worth reflecting on the fact that elections don't mean necessarily democracy. Over the years, Bahrain has pretended to comply with the international recommendations, meanwhile it is still restricting liberties and perpetuating widespread violations of human rights.

Bahrain will hold elections on 24 November, despite countless restrictions preventing the election from being truly free or fair. Currently there are around 4,000 political prisoners behind the bars within a population of approximately 800,000 citizens. Formal political parties are illegal, and all opposition political societies have been forcibly dissolved. The ruling family maintains a monopoly on political power and owns all broadcast media outlets. In this kind of political climate, no one would argue that a true democracy will prevail after the November 24th elections. The election will only serve as another measure for deceiving the public and a true failure for a real democracy in the troubled Gulf island.

*European Advocacy and Researcher Intern for ADHRB



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