Salman, head of Shi'ite opposition party Al Wefaq, speaks during a news conference in Manama...Sheikh Ali Salman, head of Shi'ite opposition party Al Wefaq, speaks during a news conference, as a television set in the background shows pictures of Bahraini women riot police arresting female protesters, in Manama September 25, 2011. Al-Wafaq boycotted by-elections on Saturday, held to fill 18 seats in the lower house of its parliament, which were vacated by Al Wefaq members earlier this year during a crackdown. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed (BAHRAIN - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the al-Wefaq movement, has been behind bars since 2014 © Reuters

A group of men sit in a café discussing Bahrain’s upcoming parliamentary election, their frustration building as each explains why they will not be voting.

They speak in low tones about friends and relatives jailed in a government crackdown on protesters pushing for reforms. There are complaints that parliament does not represent them, that MPs do nothing for the people and that power is too concentrated in the hands of the ruling al-Khalifa family.

“The majority of people won’t vote,” says Mohammed. “This is not real democracy, I want something where people have a real voice.”

The men are members of Bahrain’s Shia majority, a community that has long complained of economic and political marginalisation at the hands of the ruling Sunni monarchy.

In 2011, the Shia were at the heart of an uprising that posed the biggest threat to the House of Khalifa’s grip on power as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding reform.

The demonstrations were brutally put down after Saudi Arabia deployed troops in support of Bahraini security forces, but protests continued to simmer. They have diminished over the past 18 months, but the disgruntlement among young Shia is palpable. More than 3,000 people are estimated to have been imprisoned, including some of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activists. The main opposition movement, al-Wefaq, has been dissolved and its leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, has been behind bars since December 2014. The government accuses al-Wefaq, a Shia Islamist group that won 18 of the 40 seats in 2010 elections, of promoting violence.

But many Shia say the elections to the assembly’s lower house, due to take place on November 24, will be held without their community having any credible representation. No members of al-Wefaq are allowed to stand as candidates and Bahrainis say the government is encouraging individuals not affiliated with the opposition to stand.

“There’s none that will have the credibility or the trust of the mainstream,” says Sayed Alwadaei, at the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. “There are no political leaders, they are all behind bars or in exile. [The government] simply want people to surrender.” The government insists those jailed are criminals.

Zayed Alzayani, the industry, commerce and tourism minister, accuses al-Wefaq of abandoning its responsibility to the electorate, saying the movement chose to “be a destructive force” rather than a “positive force in reforming Bahrain”. “There are lessons learnt from 2011, the people of Bahrain are wiser now to believe or disbelieve what they hear,” Mr Alzayani says. “In 2011, a lot of it was driven by emotion.”

Activists argue the election will bring little change in a country that has become more repressive, with no independent media and the threat of imprisonment facing those who speak out.

The upper house of parliament, or Shura Council, is appointed directly by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Members of the royal family hold 12 of the 26 posts in cabinet, which is also appointed by the monarch, according to the US State Department’s 2017 Human Rights report. It highlights restrictions on the rights of association and freedom of movement, including arbitrary citizenship revocation and limits on Shia political participation.

An opposition politician, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the government needs to build confidence within the Shia community by, for example, releasing political prisoners, if the kingdom is to move forward.

“Those people who engaged with the government over the past four years got nothing, only more repression,” the politician says. “We are not asking today for the election of the prime minister, these are long-term goals. Today we want the government to end the repression, release political prisoners and create conditions for reconciliation.”

Some Shia believe it is time for their community to re-engage with the political system: turnout at the polls will be an important indicator of the mood.

“The majority of people would like to participate,” says Majeed al-Alawi, a former minister who was involved in negotiations between the royal family and al-Wefaq in 2011 and 2014. “We need to start building bridges between [the Shia] and the government.”

When al-Wefaq boycotted the 2014 election, the government put turnout at 52 per cent, down from 67 per cent in 2010 when the opposition won all 18 seats it contested. (The opposition said turnout in 2014 was below 40 per cent).

“The major problem in Bahrain that has created problems since 1980 is the persecution of the Shia, they feel like second or third-class citizens,” the opposition politician says. “As long as the government does not solve this problem, the Shia will be in opposition.”

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