Reforms and challenges in Bahrain

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

The challenges facing democratization in Bahrain are not unlike those faced by developing countries around the world, despite the individual characteristics of each country. When King Hamad bin Isa ascended the throne in 1999, a political reform project was initiated. In 2001 the National Action Charter was launched, and many political and human rights societies were established, freedom of expression and assembly were expanded and parliamentary and council elections took place. Today, the main challenges ?acing democracy in Bahrain can be summarised as follows:

With regards to political societies and civil society organizations

  • Contrary to popular belief, social organisations and political parties have not agreed on the details and the extent of the democratization process. Some view democracy itself as a danger which could undermine their interests and very existence. For some, more democracy would entail the dominance of one sect- specifically the Shia. For this reason some parties have rejected the idea of an elected Government because it will inevitably lead to a Shia Government or be dominated by the Shia majority.
  • Political parties after the reforms have failed to overcome narrow sectarian affiliations even when their charters theoretically reflect openness. In practice however, religious and sectarian affiliations continued to determine the political positions of all parties. This can be attributed to a weakness in the national culture and democracy in Bahrain. It was hoped that with time democracy would yield civil political parties which are able to overcome narrow affiliations.
  • Political societies failed to establish meaningful political alliances or to even share decisive political common grounds before and after reforms. There was no clear consensus with regards to the ultimate target of the political reforms: is it the establishment of a constitutional monarchy or just the improvement of the existing system. As such there had been no agreement on the form and the content of an alternative democratic system. The establishment of any democratic system requires as a prerequisite ?n agreement between the various components of society, and between these components and the government. The means through which a consensual political system can be achieved is an issue that has yet to be addressed.
  • The experience of civil society organizations in Bahrain failed because it was trapped in past political affiliations and could not overcome social divisions. This can be attributed to the fact that it is an experience that did not have enough time to mature; therefore it had a limited impact on the democratization process and social development, even though the number of civil society organizations was significantly large.
  • From the outset ,there were those among the opposition who raised serious doubts about the political process, viewing the reforms as insufficient, and taking the decision, not only to boycott the democratic process (Al wefaq boycotted the first elections then), but also to reject it fundamentally, present radical demands and refuse the gradual approach towards democracy, demanding radical change instead. This resulted in more tension strengthening the positions of those opposed to democratization, as wel? as leading to added restrictions on political societies involved in the political process. All of this has weakened the momentum towards the desired change.

The Executive Authority

  • As is the case with all democracies, the beginning in 2000 was encouraging, but conservative groups within the system rejected the process and hindered the reformists’ project. Unfortunately, they succeeded and fears regarding the continuation of the reform project increased.
  • One of the obstacles facing democratization includes the presence of heavy baggage and problems inherited from the pre-reform era. Reformists succeeded in solving many of these, but others remained unsolved such as: compensating pre-reform victims and finding ways and means to create some sort of balance by accommodating all segments of the society in the state’s institutions based on the principle of equality as stated in the National Action Charter and the Constitution. These problems, in addition to oth?r factors were used to inflame the street for many years and resulted in radical political demands.
  • Democratic developments have failed to improve the Government’s performance with regards to providing public services. This raised questions and doubts about the seriousness and the benefit of democracy.
  • The popular movement in February 2011 was influence by the Arab Spring in combination with the failure of both Government and opposition, as well as the inadequacy that characterized the performances of the official institutions including the newly elected parliament. Tensions on the street have proved to be a serious obstacle facing democracy, especially after the withdrawal of the opposition from the political process and the occurrence of human rights violations. The events also resulted in huge social ?nd sectarian schism, as well as political divisions. However, this movement has opened a window of opportunities to establish a political system which is more stable, responsive to the needs of the current phase, and capable of overcoming the mistakes and shortcomings. In short, the opportunity is still there for Bahrain to cross to the other side and reach out for democracy, security and stability.
  • The opposition believes that the political authority has unjustifiable concerns regarding the outcome of the democracy. The Government believed that it was necessary to accommodate the Shia politically, but it was not sure of their political performance, and whether the concept of a gradually implemented political process would be acceptable to them. This resulted – in the opinion of the Shia opposition- in complicating the political process and in deepening the mistrust by taking some measures that the o?position deem incorrect such as the ratification of the constitution, the division of constituencies and the placement of parliamentary mechanisms which slowed the pace of the ratification of laws and legislations. As for the Government, it is talking about efforts to make the interim democratic political process run smoothly and succeed with minimum loss .This would entail catering for regional concerns as well as for the concerns of the political forces within or outside the system i.e. assurances that t?e whole matter has nothing to do with targeting the Shia and everything to do with driving the reform project towards success

The situation in the region

The regional factor was and will remain a major obstacle facing democratization in Bahrain. The fact that Bahrain lies in a region where democracy is not only discouraged but faces active hostility, has inevitably put pressure on the Bahraini experience. Democracy does not agree with the nature of existing regimes in the Arab world, which fear that the same experience will be repeated in their countries.

During the transitional phase which took place in 2011, Iran took advantage of the unrest in Bahrain and through its media escalated the political conflict and deepened social divisions. Western political and human rights pressures were so relentless that they’ve nearly become counterproductive as in many instances the Government could not cope and preferred to ignore them.

The absence of a democratic culture

  • Despite relative freedom, the activities of civil society organizations and the promotion of a national culture and democracy by newly established government institutions, the Government and civil society organizations did not exert enough efforts towards the development of a democratic culture. Political transition should be accompanied with cultural changes which can be achieved through education, the media and public cultural activities. A national democratic culture which encourages the acceptance of d?versity and tolerance has not developed as much as developments in freedom of expression and political freedoms. It is possible to say that all political parties were occupied with politics and ignored the task of spreading awareness and educating the public, which is very important for a society taking its first steps towards democracy.