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Bahrain: What now?

In the parliamentary vote that took place on 22 November, the government of the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain is claiming an unofficial turnout of nearly 52% while the leading opposition society, Al Wefaq is saying not more than 30% came out to vote. Wefaq and other opposition parties boycotted the election leaving the field open for hundreds of independent candidates to run.

The majority Shia population joined Wefaq’s call and boycotted the election in large numbers despite veiled warnings in the local media of “punishment” for non-voters that may include being barred from public sector jobs, a ‘big stick’ threat as the government is the country’s largest employer.

Bahrain has been ruled by the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family for more than 200 years. An independent panel of international human rights experts found the government, which is dominated by the al Khalifas, responsible for numerous human rights abuses when it used force to put down a peaceful pro-democracy protest in 2011. Shia who have long complained of unfair treatment at the hands of the ruling family formed the bulk of the protest but Sunni Bahrainis also joined them in demanding democratic reform.

In the crackdown that followed, dozens were killed, hundreds arrested and thousands sacked from their jobs. The vast majority of victims were Shia.

Responding to an international outcry, King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa promised reforms but the opposition says that whatever reforms have been undertaken have not gone nearly far enough, that human rights abuses continue and that a national dialogue aimed at reconciliation was neither meaningful nor ever intended to move the country forward toward change. Citing those reasons, the opposition led by Wefaq decided to boycott the vote.

It is against this backdrop of simmering anger and unresolved issues that the election was run.

The campaign itself, in the absence of the opposition, was notably light on substantive debate about how to resolve the nearly 4 year old conflict that has split the island along sectarian lines, damaged the economy and tarnished the kingdom’s international image. And unsurprisingly, with candidate slates dominated by independents, those that did vote were spoiled for choice.

The confusion about who to vote for and why is reflected in the fact that only 5 candidates were elected outright with more than 50% of the votes cast. One other secured his seat by acclamation. The other 34 seats will be decided in reruns.

And once all the candidates are elected, the parliament will be a house of independents, or as Mansoor al Jamri, the editor of Al Wasat – Bahrain’s only independent newspaper – says, it will be a parliament made up mostly of “random unknowns.”

In the short term this plays well for the ruling al Khalifa family. By boycotting the election against the advice and pressure of the United States and the UK, the opposition finds itself outside the tent, effectively isolated and with its opportunities to influence debate diminishing.

Inside the parliament it will take some time for any sort of blocs to emerge that will in any way be able to challenge the al Khalifas who have made it very clear that any further talk of reform will now take place only in the lower house.

That means that the national dialogue between Crown Prince Salman and the opposition societies which has staggered along in fits and starts is now effectively sidelined. The crown prince, widely seen as a moderate, spent months shuttling between the opposition and the Royal Court to little effect.

As Ali Alaswad, a leading Wefaq spokesperson and former MP told me after the vote “There is no national dialogue. It is over.”

But of course conducting an election in controversial circumstances and achieving what the al Khalifas see as a satisfactory outcome does not mean that the problems facing the ruling family have gone away.

For while the government narrative is that a majority of the electorate chose to vote, that doesn’t fit with what Al Wefaq has noted in ridings where it ran in the previous election.

In Mr Alaswad’s old constituency for example which he won in 2010 with nearly 7000 votes, he told me that only 299 were cast this time around.

Should that story be replicated in other Shia constituencies, and very likely it will be, a significant and deeply frustrated segment of the population will have chosen to be excluded from the political process.

That should set alarm bells ringing in London but given that the British ambassador Iain Lindsay was out and about and photographed at a polling station on election day – an odd thing, really, for an ambassador to be doing – and the UK embassy in Manama was posting positive views on social media on how the vote was going it seems unlikely that will happen.

So the al Khalifas and their supporters in the west can enjoy the moment but down the road they will be unable to deny a simple reality: Bahrain remains divided. Indeed one could say the kingdom is divided as never before.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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