Bahrain: Parliamentary Elections
and Human Rights Promotion

Bahrain is approaching the date for holding legislative elections scheduled for 23 Oct 2010. It will be the third election since Bahrain started the political reform ten years ago making Bahrain one of the emerging democracies in the world. It is obvious that the next parliamentary elections are of paramount importance in order to strengthen democracy in Bahrain; handle conflict with the forces of extremism and violence, which want to sabotage the political process; as well as facing the regional negative tensions that are reflected on the region and Bahrain. That is why elections are so crucial for political stability in Bahrain.

There are two democratic experiences in the Gulf, the first is the Kuwaiti experience, which started in the sixties of the last century; and the other is the Bahraini experience, which was cut off in the seventies and then resumed in 2000 through a reform project championed by the King of Bahrain. It is clear that the Parliament of Bahrain does not have the powers enjoyed by the Parliament of Kuwait because the draft laws adopted by the House of Representatives of Bahrain must also be approved by the appointed Shura Council in order to be valid. However, this does not detract from the vital role played by the Bahraini Parliament. However, there is need to fully empower the Bahraini Parliament in order to keep up with the ongoing political transition in Bahrain.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognized (the right of every citizen to take part in the management of public affairs, and the right to elect or be elected). Thus, the elections are an inherent right for every citizen to participate in the management of state affairs. Elections must be based on objective and reasonable criteria such as: ensuring the right of citizens to participate in the management of public affairs; conducting periodic, genuine and credible elections. Positive measures should be taken to overcome specific difficulties such as illiteracy, language barriers, poverty, or impediments to freedom of movement, which prevent persons entitled to vote from exercising their rights effectively. Persons entitled to vote must have a free choice of candidates; such electoral participation cannot be realized without ensuring freedom of expression, assembly and association. Hence, comes the importance of political participation of all factions of society without exclusion. Elections are the most important mechanisms for political reform particularly when all political forces and segments of society are actively involved.

The need for the participation of al political societies

The upcoming Bahraini elections present a great opportunity to promote the process of political reform and democratization, as well as to identify the sizes of political and social forces and their weights in the Bahraini society. They present an opportunity to measure whether some political forces are declining or progressing for their participation in the political process.

The elections is also an opportunity for the political forces that boycotted the previous elections in measuring the extent of their national commitments to the political process as a whole, their willingness to contribute positively to the management of public affairs of the country and take responsibility. This is a human right guaranteed by Article 25 of the ICCPR referred to above. The parliamentary elections in 2002 were boycotted by four political societies namely: the Al-Wifaq Society, which is considered the strongest political society in Bahrain; the National Democratic Action, the National Democratic Alliance and the Islamic Action. But all societies (except the Islamic Action) took a u-turn and participated in the 2006 elections.

It must be recalled the importance of elections and the role of political elites and their impact on the containment of sectarian, tribal and ethnic tendencies in the Bahraini society, and should not work to fuel them. Programmes of political societies should be based on a comprehensive national basis, and away from sectarian loyalty. The elections are the best peaceful means in the fight against violent tendencies that usually affect members of communities governed by oppressive regimes. Furthermore, the elections result in producing means and mechanisms for monitoring and hold to account officials as well as fighting corruption.

Role of civil society in the elections

To have a complete elections, it is necessary to strengthen the political participation of all without exclusion, and promote participation of all citizens in free and fair elections, which may require implementation of several actions and activities by political societies and civil society organizations such as round table seminars, conferences and panel discussions involving political societies and representatives of civil society and citizens to discuss ways and means to promote a free and fair elections and how to engage everyone in it. Such activities should aim to raise the awareness of citizens and civil society institutions of international standards for free and fair elections, and the role they can play in promoting participation in elections, as well as to promote the concept of citizenship. It is important to emphasize the concept of citizenship as the primary source of rights and duties, and that there is no place for discrimination between citizens on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex, belief and sect. In general, the electoral process should include the minimum international standards for elections, which we will cover in the next issue of this newsletter.

It is important to point to the need for civil society to play a role in activating the dialogue on the mechanisms required for holding credible parliamentary elections, as well as to its role in urging the political forces and citizens to engage in the elections. Civil society should also work to encourage the political forces to promote youth participation in the electoral process at all stages, and should work to raise awareness among young people about the constitutional and international standards for free and fair elections and the importance of participation.

The quota system between acceptance and rejection

Bahraini women have been able to develop women’s political participation in the management of public affairs in Bahraini through the institutions of local authorities and municipalities and involvement in civil society organizations and voluntary institutions and national advisory councils such as the Supreme Council for Women’s Affairs. But women failed to access Parliament through elections for many reasons including the culture of society, weak potential of women and lack of support from political societies. Thus the idea of applying the quota system was born to reserve seats in Parliament for women. The idea was endorsed by the Women’s Federation and its affiliates but rejected by the Supreme Council for Women’s Affairs.

Supporters of the quota system believe that the system is a procedure to enhance the progress of women’s political participation through the allocation of seats for women in either Parliament or the municipalities, or a mechanism to address the marginalization of women in decision-making bodies. The question remains about the extent to which the quota system will help in promoting women’s representation in Parliament of Bahrain. The Bahraini women participated for the first time in the 2002 elections as candidates and voters but did not win any seats. In the 2006 parliamentary elections there were 16 female candidates but only one woman won a seat.

On the other hand, opponents of the quota system argue that the Bahraini society must mature, culturally and politically, so that it does not see the nomination and election of women a strange or unfamiliar phenomenon, and that women themselves need to make efforts to reach Parliament on equal footing with men without the need for a special resolution or sympathy. Moreover, there is a difficulty in making constitutional amendments acceptable to all and which will enforce the quota system and give women the proportion of seats in the House of Representatives (e.g. 30%).

Candidates must include human rights in their programs

There is need to include human rights in the programs of candidates for the upcoming elections because this commitment will lead to a greater political stability and respect for human rights, and will work as a barrier against sectarian violence. The importance of this commitment is that it makes MPs engaged in policy-making that seeks to reform the human rights situation as a matter of high priority in their agenda when they reach Parliament. This entails a moral obligation on their part to fulfill the promises they made during the campaign. Reform of legislation to conform to international human rights instruments is the beginning of the right track towards respect for human rights by institutions and executive bodies concerned. It is the responsibility of civil society in Bahrain to put pressure on all candidates for the inclusion of human rights in their programs.

Election monitoring

Monitoring the elections is an internal matter related to the state. The State must therefore provide an appropriate environment for national observers. The Transparency Society and the Bahrain Human Rights Society participated in monitoring the last elections in Bahrain, also participated in monitoring the elections in several countries including Kuwait and Lebanon. It is important to mention the availability of national expertise to accomplish this monitoring work. But some countries have reservations against the presence of foreign observers for elections, or even against the U.N. to monitor the elections process. It is known that the U.N. has monitored the electoral process in a number of countries in various regions, particularly in countries with fragile democratic experiences especially in the post-armed conflict and civil wars, or when the U.N. provides assistance in the context of the process of building State institutions (Bosnia and Herzegovina is an example). In general, the nature and quality of assistance provided by the U.N. for the elections is determined in light of the particular circumstances of the State concerned.

So far, the Bahraini government has a position against the presence of foreign observers but has agreed to have local observers. Furthermore, there seems to be no insistence from civil society to have foreign observers for the elections. The experience of the last election did not show fraud, which requires the presence of foreign observers. However, the Bahraini Government should provide all assistance and create conditions to help civil society organizations and local observers to do their work. Such domestic monitoring task is essential in order to give credibility to the electoral process. The monitoring process should cover all stages of the elections including: the preparations for the elections including the campaign period; registration of voters; vote counting; results and follow-up.

The BHRM calls on the parties concerned to facilitate monitoring the upcoming legislative and municipal elections, and to facilitate the work of the observers to do their work to the fullest, in order to ensure fair elections and to prevent interference by government agencies. It also emphasizes the need to avoid any practices that might cast doubt on the credibility and integrity of the elections.