Bahrain is taking to the polls on Saturday in its first general election since the 2011 uprising that has since degenerated into an ongoing political impasse.
A boycott by the main opposition parties undermines the chances for any kind of political reconciliation in the highly polarised country.
“The marginalisation of the opposition is already going on. The boycott will not really change that. When we were in parliament we failed to stop many transgressions on people’s rights or the endemic corruption,” argued Matar Matar, a former member of parliament from the al-Wefaq party, one of the main political parties that will not field any candidates at the weekend.
When thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets in 2011 there were representatives from a vast cross section of society – but the political upheaval quickly took on a sectarian dimension with predominantly Shia protesters challenging the Sunni elite and the al-Khalifa royal family.
A heavy-handed and Saudi-backed crackdown succeeding in quashing the uprising – but political, and increasingly sectarian, divisions remain unresolved.
Saturday’s election marks almost three years to the day since the king pledged to implement a framework of reform recommended by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, an investigation into the human rights abuses, corruption and unrest of early 2011.
A failure of words
There have been numerous attempts at dialogue but scant progress. The failure to reach common ground has been mired by claim and counter-claim of intransigence between loyalist and opposition parties.
|Everyone carries a certain degree of blame.
– Yacoub al-Slaise, al-Fateh Youth Movement
“Everyone carries a certain degree of blame,” said Yacoub al-Slaise, a founding member of the al-Fateh Youth Movement. “The breakdown is partly due to the opposition running out of ideas, the government is moving far too slowly on the core issues, and as for the hardline loyalists, they have the least political imagination of all.”
Slaise’s reform organisation is “too loyalist for the opposition and too opposition for the loyalists”, he said.
Government detractors complain of the detention and harassment of anyone who criticises the royal family as well as the gerrymandering of voting districts.
Al-Wefaq won 64 per cent of the popular vote in 2010 polls, but the make-up of electoral boundaries left it with only 18 of 40 seats in parliament. They claim recent changes to the voting districts stack the odds even further against them.
“I don’t see sectarianism and segregation by boundaries as the opposition claim,” countered Mohamed al-Sayed, spokesman for Citizens for Bahrain, a pro-government advocacy group.
“They have to be in the political process if we are going to move forward. There have been some positive reforms and we need to put them to the test – and that can only be done with parties like Wefaq in the parliament. They cannot expect a complete shift overnight but they need to be part of the game.”
Popular sentiment within the Shia and opposition constituencies has made it difficult for the main opposition parties, al-Wefaq and al-Waed, to participate even if they wanted to.
“People in those communities have lost a lot. Lives have been lost, many people were fired from their jobs and there are of course still lots of them in jail,” said Slaise. “They expect a tough line from the opposition leaders so the politicians give them what they want.”
The opposition boycott stems from a failure of the political process and this further undermines the prospects for dialogue, say analysts.
|If there is a lack of dialogue we will see a rise of radical and militant voices. This is a concern for everyone.
– Mohamed al-Sayed, Citizens for Bahrain
The repeated collapse of talks in which the conflicting parties were around the same table led the crown prince to try a different strategy earlier in the year. Having met separately with leaders from the main blocs he created a task force to try and find common ground between what they had told him.
The result of the task force passed the majlis al-aayaan, a group of Bahrain’s notables, and was set to be discussed within parliament. Now that the main opposition parties will not be in the coming assembly, this route for dialogue has been cut off.
Threat of the extremes
This lack of progress threatens to bolster the extremes and further weaken moderate voices.
“If there is a lack of dialogue we will see a rise of radical and militant voices. This is a concern for everyone; loyalist or opposition, Sunni or Shia,” noted Citizens for Bahrain’s Mohamed al-Sayed.
Analysts have noted that recent constituency boundary changes also appear to undermine radical Sunni groups, indicating government fears. Around 300 Bahrainis are believed to be fighting alongside the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Regardless of the final results of the weekend’s vote, the boycott ensures that both sides will be able to claim a victory of sorts. The government will have a new parliament that supports the ruling family’s agenda and low turnout among the opposition camp will buttress allegations of a void of legitimacy at the top.
“Everybody is exhausted,” concluded Al-Fateh Youth Movement’s Yacoub al-Slaise. “People are biting their fingers waiting for somebody to offer a real alternative and break the mould.”