National Dialogue – The Powers of the Parliamentary Chambers

The next topic on my National Dialogue agenda is the powers of the parliamentary chambers. To many, this is a clear-cut issue that doesn’t need too much debate: if we contend to be a democratic country, then the powers must emanate from the people, as such, only a fully representative parliament should be entertained.

The reality of the situation in Bahrain; however, is quite different. Almost every businessman I spoke to bristles at the thought of doing away with the powers of the Shura Council. Removing the Shura Council or even reducing its powers would be a harbinger of disaster. The usual refrain is that the elected parliament will immediately turn the country into either Saudi on one hand or Iran on the other. To me, being one or the other is virtually the same thing. Both are known abusers of freedoms and human rights, so I wouldn’t want that situation either.

Looking at the results of the last elections in 2010 though gives me a different perspective; we have less representation of ultra-religious members compared to previous terms. Most Islamist societies lost out to independents. Wefaq, the largest opposition society fielded technocrats and repeatedly declared that their vision is exclusively for a modern civic government rather than a religious one. They have been at pains to officially declare that they do not think that the “Wilayat Al-Faqih” doctrine has a place for Bahrain, and although there are many from the opposite side who refuse to believe them, I am happy to give them the benefit of the doubt. I haven’t seen anything from them that would make me run scared from their declared position in that regard. I personally would rather have a completely secular government and society as I firmly believe that religion should never be intertwined with the day-to-day running of a modern country and neither should it be a main component of its constitution.

My own position for this topic is clear; if we want a full democracy then we’d better abide by that principle. There is no room for a Shura Council, nor is there one for an entity whose powers exceed that of an elected chamber. As far as I’m concerned, the Shura Council can continue to exist but only to offer non-binding advice to the elected chamber, and it should not have any powers whatsoever.

To those who say that this will invite chaos, I say that Bahrain is better than that. Societies self-regulate based on their culture and traditions. They won’t – and shouldn’t – allow a parliament to run away with their freedoms. In order to ensure that doesn’t happen, we must demand a proper, binding and clear constitution which enshrines human rights, personal freedoms and freedoms of expression as non-violate. We must demand a binding constitution that does not offer loopholes into every single code by appending that tenuous “as permitted by the law” to every paragraph, and we shouldn’t have a constitution which enshrines discrimination by declaring a state religion and be inspired and embroiled in it.

Once such a binding constitution is in place, true democratic reforms will not only exist, but even flourish.

These are the points which I shall raise at the next session of the National Dialogue on Thursday. I look forward to hearing the other delegates’ views and the ensuing debates.

What’s your view in this? Should we do away with the Shura Council and bestow all powers to an elected chamber? Or are you satisfied with the status quo?

21 thoughts on “National Dialogue – The Powers of the Parliamentary Chambers”

  1. Good article Mahmood, The shura council must go and the people of Bahrain must choose their government. I dont think theres any evidence that Al-Wefaq wants an islamic state and lets be honest we’ve seen how the Iranians are suffering under one. Why would the bahrainis want to go through that?

    I should point out that while in a democratic secular country religion wouldn’t be forced down the throat of anybody it is very likely prohibition will be enacted. However prohibition was also enacted in the United States for some period so i don’t see any reason to worry.

  2. Mahmood – I completely agree. I think a move to a secular civic form of governing the country is what is required. As for the Shura, I understand its need to counter-balance the super-religious carpet hugging types, but if there is another way of achieving the same result, then I am all for it!! Lastly, what Bahrain also needs, and please be sure to raise this, is an Anti Discrimination Law and Equal Opportunity Employment Law. These are critical and fundamental to putting this whole sectarian issue to rest. Criminalizing discrimination in society and at the work place will go along way to addressing the unending grievances we keep hearing up. Good luck and may people like you bring about the change and peace Bahrain so badly needs. Until we get our house in order, there is no chance in hell we can go back to building the economy, being “business friendly”, or even hosting international events, nevermind competing with our dear neighbours Dubai and Doha.

  3. I can see why businessmen are concerned about doing away with the Shura Council, because it represents a segment of society that is not represented in parliament. However, to conclude that the solution is to keep the status quo is both limiting and unsustainable long term.

    In a functioning democratic society, the type of people that present themselves for elected office often include people of highly educated, experienced calibre who are motivated, effective and ambitious – ie the type of people that the commercial, moderate types want to continue seeing in Shura. Why are they not in Parliament? Because for the most part it is not a rewarding job with real prospect of effecting positive impact on Bahrain. That is what needs to change.

    If Parliament is given more power and greater impact on issues of national strategic importance, the type of people who are currently in Shura could continue to serve their country (and get paid for it) through being elected in Parlaiment. Would that keep the businessmen happy?

  4. You seem to believe on sincerity of this Dialogue. I’d like to hear what interesting proposals have you heard? Has anyone vocally tried to speak for the detained and prosecuted through military courts?

    Getting rid of Shura Council would be tremendous but I haven’t yet heard any progress other than talk so I’m not holding my breath. This dialogue seems more like stalling and cooling the public at large so they won’t protest anymore.

    “The usual refrain is that the elected parliament will immediately turn the country into either Saudi on one hand or Iran on the other. To me, being one or the other is virtually the same thing. Both are known abusers of freedoms and human rights, so I wouldn’t want that situation either.”

    This is true. Only difference even for westerns seems to be the (may I say ridiculous) position on Israel by Iran. If they didn’t have head of state that denies holocaust and threatens Israel with what not stupidity then the Iran and Saudi Arabia were almost inseparable. In a ways the human rights issues such as women rights are better (not good though) in Iran, yet US is ready to rant about issues Iran have but does not point out that actually Saudi Arabia has things a notch worse.

    Point I try to make is that position on Israel is very meaningful, for US that is. US would never allow Bahrain to fall upon Iran’s puppetry, and they probably are ready to endorse anything Saudi Arabia comes up for the Bahrain.

  5. As a young liberal Bahraini, I firmly believe in a secular elected government. I don’t think that a Shura council with overriding powers is fair to anyone, unless I personally ran it, which of course would be the making of a dictatorship! However, judging by the attitudes of my parents and others of their generation, I find that a sizable segment of the population believes that it is the DUTY of the government to legislate based on matters of religion and morality. A constitution that does not enshrine Islamic values will not please my parents any more than the current one does. As you said, “societies self-regulate based on their culture and traditions,” and unfortunately, I think, this means religion will continue to play (too large) a role in legislative decisions, whether or not Wefaq or others officially declare an Islamic state. I find it hard to imagine a Bahrain where I will be allowed to advocate for gay marriage, for example, and everyone will accept that as my right to free speech because the constitution says so. We’ll have people voting to change the constitution.
    I think what we need to do is step back and realize that while people may indeed choose to legislate based on religion, they will also be legislating on many other things like corruption and economic development, issues that I think will eventually eclipse moral and religious debates. I feel like we only have 3% of the population actually interested in politics, because most people feel like there’s no point within the current system. With the Shura council gone, people will feel more empowered and relevant. It’s the extremes that are always loudest, but that doesn’t mean they’re the most powerful. I think if something controversial like prohibition is put forward as a bill in parliament, the absence of a Shura council might just mobilize the currently indifferent masses to try and block it. It will take us many many years to get the political process even somewhat right, but we have to start somewhere, sometime.

    1. ” As you said, “societies self-regulate based on their culture and traditions,” and unfortunately, I think, this means religion will continue to play (too large) a role in legislative decisions, whether or not Wefaq or others officially declare an Islamic state. I find it hard to imagine a Bahrain where I will be allowed to advocate for gay marriage, for example, and everyone will accept that as my right to free speech because the constitution says so. We’ll have people voting to change the constitution.”

      But if you come up a system where democratic elections will take place and the elected can affect the society, I would expect you to see a change in attitudes. From election to election there would be progress. Changes wouldn’t happen overnight, but the ones in power were then accountable. They would not get re-elected (or arbitrarily appointed by King) if they misbehave. Masses never promote violence and rarely inhibit rights, the minority leaders do. Masses on the other hand can be sympathetic for suffering, and bit by bit the human rights will widen.

  6. I frankly think we do need a Shura Council because the current voting culture has not matured yet and Islamists lose out this time, they’ll be back in if/when “technocrats/afandis/big spenders” fail, but it needs to be re-engineered and reformed.

    I think the Shura Council should be a Think Tank and the “brakes” when MPs go on a rampage of Stupid.

    The King’s methods of choosing and appointing Shura members is – to put mildly – odd. I think that Shura members should be “semi voted” in i.e. heads of Labour unions and societies, human rights orgs should have seats. Artists, scientists, legislators, educators should have a quota of seats which should be changed at different phases in implementing visions like 2030 (i.e. more economic members from 2011-2015, then switch to more industrial members from 2016-2020 etc…)

    I think everyone agrees that Nuwabs need more legislative powers and have a much greater impact on how things are run in the country. Shura should be what’s written on the can, a council of the country’s elite minds who discuss and churn out great ideas and makes MPs form it into legislation.

    As for the removal of state religion in our constitution, I would have to disagree with you there. Bahrain is an Islamic country and all laws should follow the lines of Sharia in some capacity, whether in personal status laws, civil or criminal laws.

    I find secularism good in some aspects but for Bahrain, it’s the lazy man’s way out of the sectarian problems we have. Islam and Politics do mix and mix well, it’s Extremism in any shape or form with Politics is what is dangerous!

    1. Secularism is the difficult way out Yacoob! It requires a conscious effort of the individual to accept the other without judgement!

      As to the Shura Council, my opinion is unchanged. I find them and the concept of having such an organ superfluous at best.

    2. After a lifetime of truly believing that Islam and politics can mix, I am now of the opinion that they certainly DO NOT. Some form of secularism is the only way to maintain a civic society where all are truly equal, which as it turns out, even parties like Wefaq are calling for.

      We don’t need a “Shura council”, a “Bey’a council”, an “Elders council” or any other archaic middle-age notions, a house of representatives is enough for a country like Bahrain.

      As for extremism, perhaps a little introspection on your part would be useful. Everyone but you seems to be able to smell the stench of extremism in your posts.

  7. Yagoob, a Shura Council is a half-solution, an easy way out. Apply the brakes to what, exactly? Islamism? Who defines ‘stupidity’? Who’s to say the Shura council won’t abuse their power? If the majority of Bahrainis want an Islamic state, who is the Shura council to say no? We need a real constitution instead of a Shura council. If we think there is something inherently wrong with an Islamic state, then we should embrace a secular constitution in order to protect our individual rights to practice religion as we see fit. The attitude of “Oh let’s just leave it to the technocrats and elite” – is precisely what’s angered everyone so far. Think tanks are great, but they are independent institutions that make recommendations, not enact legislation. The only way a voting culture will mature is if people are allowed to practice it.
    There is no easy fix, and the longer we let the problem fester the harder it will be to eventually resolve.

  8. I like the concept of a Shura council. It moderates. It could be less of a rubber stamp and more dynamic, sure, but two houses is a good thing.

    I always thought the UK’s House of Lords delivered too. The tone of debate was way way way more reasonable than in our parliament. The real reason people were against it was dogma. Democratic fundamentalism, if you will.

    So far, Bahrain’s parliament has an embarrassing track record. Maybe forcing Shura members into parliament would show the underachievers who slipped into demagogic politics how it should be done, but would former Shura members want to do that?

    Any organizational entity that wants to get things done is layered. How democratic is an army, a corporation? You have a board of experienced and knowledgeable leaders in each of these, correct? Is that a problem? There’s a range of options imaginable for how much power and responsibility such a body could or should have. It’s not my business, but I for one think you should keep Shura.

    “I think the Shura Council should be a Think Tank and the “brakes” when MPs go on a rampage of Stupid.” Hehe, nicely put :)

  9. Two houses is fine in principle, but at the moment we have inherited levels of government, appointed ministers many of whom whom are relatives, another appointed body in the form of Shura, and only one junior level of elected representatives.

    Moderation can be achieved by removing some of the hierarchy and if we have to keep some appointed (as opposed to elected) reps, let this be either Shura or ministers, not both. The example of the House of Lords ignores the fact that ministers in the UK are not appointed by the Queen, they are an integral part of the democratic process, not above it and exempt from it

  10. Let’s see if I have this correct. Bahrain is a “constitutional monarchy.” Bahrain has a bi-carmel house. The Upper House is the Shura Council. The Lower House is the Chamber of Deputies.

    The King, of course, is the King. The Shura Council is appointed directly by the King. The Chamber of Deputies is elected.

    Based on this, I make the following observations:

    1. In order for “rights” to be preserved, a clear and specific definition of what a right is must exist.
    i. The best way to affect this is to include a definition of a right in official government papers.
    ii. Here in the United States, the original Constitution was REJECTED until a Bill of Rights was amended to it. One of the mistakes of that era was the lack of a written definition of what a right is. The Bill of Rights is still in effect but no one knows what a right is.

    2. In a democracy, the sovereignty lies with the people as a whole and NOT with the individual. Thus, the people as a whole, the collective, have authority ONLY as a whole to the detriment of the individual. Thus, in a democracy, rights are NOT preserved.
    i. This is implicit in your several references to “democracy.’
    3. In a republic, the sovereignty is invested in the individual beyond the power of the majority or the collective. In this case, it does NOT matter what form a government takes with the one exception that rights are inherently preserved.
    4. Checks and balances within a government are necessary to prohibit government action from infringing on rights. Inasmuch as Bahrain has a monarch, ONLY the monarch is sovereign and there are NO checks and balances as the monarch appoints the entire Upper House, the Shura Council.
    5. My personal opinion, if I ran the circus, is that Bahrain is geographically such a small nation with such a small population that Bahrain can get by with ONLY a Lower House elected directly by the people and this Lower House restricted to preserving clearly defined rights. The small size of Bahrain will require elected officials to interact personally with the people that they represent thus providing a check on their authority right their.
    6. Also, I see NO reason for a king. A chief executive could be elected for a limited term.
    7. The reality of the situation is that the king ain’t gonna’ step down or go away so you are stuck with him. More than likely he will keep his Upper House. This form of government’s only form of stability is in the concentration of power in the hands of a few as an oligarchy.
    8. I think your best bet is to clearly define a right and to petition that this be placed into the written record.

    So I ask you again, Mahmood: What IS a “right?”

  11. They need to talk about the constitution before talking aboyt the Parliament !

  12. My views on the House of Lords have changed throughout the years. But in recent times, especially with a Labour government with such a majority, it has been this institution that has moderated some of the excesses that would otherwise have been forced upon us. They have restricted the Government’s power to spy on us and resisted identity cards for example.

    In the case that you find yourself in a position, and you will, that a party has such a majority it does not need the cooperation of any of the opposition to pass a law, a second house properly populated can be valuable. Under certain circumstances the House of Commons can override the House of Lords so its power isn’t absolute. However, in reality it seldom blocks legislation, but does moderate it.

    I don’t believe that the UK is alone in that a significant proportion of the population are ill equipped to make impartial and informed political decisions. It is always a danger that a populist party sweeps to power and we end up with a government we don’t really want. A second house is a ward against this, but the effect of the second house lays entirely on the quality of its members. I’m just warning about the utopic view that an elected house will represent you well unabated, in cases where the opposition is too weak to count.

    Think also that without a constitution prohibiting it, there may be nothing stopping a party with majority instituting a dictatorship as has happened.

    In conclusion I can see that a second house can have merit but it is entirely down to whom it contains and how they get appointed. A secular government gets my vote every time. I’m new to the American constitution but from what I’ve read I think it’s a wonderful and inspiring human achievement; I wish we had it in the UK. On the back of such a set of rights, you can build a great country.

    Good Luck :)

  13. Personally, I prefer to keep the Shura Council. However, I wouldn’t mind if it’s powers were reduced to something similar to the UK House of Lords. Also, for the elected house that we DO have, electoral districts should be fair where each citizen gets an equal voice.

  14. I agree with keeping the shura council, but as an advisory body. Full legislative powers should be given to the parliament. The protection of civil liberties, religious freedom and freedom of the press should be enshrined in the constitution with no loopholes so that the parliament cannot override these freedoms.

    Yagoob, I do not think you understand the full meaning of secularism. Secularism ensures freedom of religion because it forces the government to be neutral and not endorse one religion or one form of islam over the other. It is essential for a multi-religious and multi-sect society such as ours. I live in the United States and I feel the U.S. constitution is actually pro-religion despite it being secular. People are allowed to practice their religion without government interference. The US constitution, when it was first conceived dealt with the exact situation we had in Bahrain. The US did not envision itself as a non-christian state but christian state that allows for all the different sects of christianity to practice their faith equally without government interference and without government preference of one sect over the other. The concept of freedom of religion was later expanded to include non-christian religions as more non-christians immigrated to the US (there was a time when immigration from non-western nations was restricted).

  15. to M.A.

    Just in case you are not aware:

    Historically in the USA, when we spoke of rights, what was meant was “individual rights” and NOT group rights or special rights.

    Rights were acknowledged and applied equally – as these RIGHTS come from the Creator and not from any govt.

    The only oversight the govt had in all this was to make sure that one person’s freedom didn’t hinder someone else’s freedom.

    That has all changed over the years. Now we have gay rights, minority rights, women’s rights, and so on… but it was never meant to be that way. It’s human rights!

    These rights and freedoms tempered with a strong morality and mores make a great society. The trouble with the west is: we lost our morality and this led to a decadant society where just about “anything goes”.

    1. Shiraz, the label ‘gay’ ‘women’s’ or whatever in front of ‘rights’ doesn’t mean they are exclusively for those people — it’s simply an extension of commonly held human rights to a segment of population denied those very rights.
      Anyway this has barely anything to do with how to elect parliament.

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