Whoever said that a woman cannot get just a “little” pregnant is totally wrong. Al-Wefaq Islamic Society has put paid to that myth. They are – officially – just a little pregnant. They mounted an excellent electioneering campaign in which 17 out of 18 candidates fielded won seats in Parliament, and they were even more successful in their Municipal efforts, but they are refusing to participate in the parliament they fought tooth and nail for. They have boycotted the inaugural session last Friday, and they are boycotting its meeting into which the chairmanship and its vice chairs will be decided.
They backed liberal parties and candidates even though liberals are not regarded as their traditional partners, but demonstrated political astuteness by supporting them as those liberals are considered government opposition with some presence in the political arena.
Al-Wefaq supported the liberals as best as they could without physically giving up certain seats, and that support also created excellent momentum for the Wa’ad candidates and gave them legitimacy within Al-Wefaq’s house. Even though none of the liberals actually won a seat this time, they most certainly won thousands of hearts and minds throughout Bahraini society, which is much more important at this stage, than winning actual seats in parliament. This support however will translate into winning seats in the next parliament, I am sure.
Al-Wefaq are not stupid; they have demonstrated that every step taken has been amply studied before its adoption or rejection. Their own shura council and steering committees have demonstrated their independence and their general secretary has had to acquiesce to those organ’s demands and work within the framework they provided. They have gone into the elections fully aware of the constitution, the parliamentary by-laws and the general political environment, particularly as far as Bandargate and the purported discriminatory and exclusionary policies that scandal exploded onto the Bahraini political scene. Further, Ali Salman, ascertained when asked about the number of seats his party was expected to win, that the maximum number he expects do not exceed 14, however, because of the changes in constituency boundaries before the elections, his party actually gained 3 more certain seats due to these changes. They gained 17 of the 18 contested seats. Add Aziz Abul’s seat – who is regarded as being very close to their line particularly as far as required constitutional amendments are concerned, Al-Wefaq therefore effectively has 18 of the total 40 seats in the elected chamber. That constitutes 45% of the parliamentary block, making them the largest bloc in parliament; however, they do not have a full parliamentary majority.
The beauty (and ugliness) of politics is finding the middle ground, forming malleable alliances and compromising enough to push through legislation. That of course is how most democratic parliaments actually work. In Bahrain it is a somewhat different matter. The democracy we are experiencing now is somewhat abrogated and incomplete, evidenced by the alleged meddling of the royal family, the government and the control they both this body directly and indirectly through their assigned and supported MPs. We have various examples of this which allowed the passing of contentious legislation through the previous parliament: Gatherings & Assembly and Terrorism laws are just two examples which restricted our freedoms possibly irreparably, the forced passing of the national budget for 2007/2008 in a record 2 week period at the end of the previous parliament’s tenure, the botched up investigation into the bankruptcy of the pension organisations and the refusal of MPs to issue a vote of confidence of ministers involved, the inconclusive naturalisation investigation and of course the holding back of information and general non-cooperation of the government with parliament are all indicative of the power exerted by the government and ruling family by inference onto the elected body. If you also consider the fact that the appointed Shura Council which includes 40 members all of whom are selected by the king and the power they enjoy which exceed or match those of the elected officials and the chairmanship of the Shura Council chairman on joint parliamentary sessions, it leaves no doubt whatsoever of how this elected parliament is supposed to work, or indeed the rationale for having it there in the first place.
Regardless, what I am exploring here is the justification for the new Wefaq boycott and the rationale they used to justify it and decide what they might gain from it.
Let me first look at the level of fairness of the elections; Ibrahim Sharif, the secretary general of the National Democratic Action Society has done some research in this and I tend to agree with his conclusions that the past elections where unfair, mainly due to the gerrymandering of electoral districts, arbitrary changes in the election laws and the government interference in all aspects of the elections from the constitutional changes through to the creation of out-of-constituency general voting centres through which bogus votes were cast either physically or through the instructions given to security forces on how they should vote. With the absence of a proper voting register and without releasing the voting roll as instructed by the then Justice Minister, there is no way for monitors to find out what actually happened. However, with various reports about the happenings in those centres, we can only assume – with some measure of certainty, especially if one would take into account the differential of votes received by pro-government candidates – that some fraudulent activities might have happened.
Immediately after the final elections on Dec 2nd, all we have seen from Wefaq is the good steps it has taken by visiting their supporters and calming the frayed nerves of businessmen and their continuous support of their liberal partners. They have also taken it upon themselves to invite all winning candidates to a banquet in their honour; all of these things ameliorated nerves and added to the celebratory atmosphere in Bahrain. However, Al-Wefaq has never made any reference whatsoever as to the positions it would like to have in parliament. I cannot remember a single article or occasion in which Al-Wefaq has come out unambiguously stating that they seek to head any of the parliamentary committees nor did they demand the chairmanship or a vice chairman position. In fact, what I do remember is various reports in the press suggesting that Ali Salman supports Al-Dhahrani to return as the speaker for the second term.
So what changed? Why did Al-Wefaq make demands now that as they are the largest party gaining 62% of the total vote they should automatically get the chairmanship of parliament? Especially as they are fully aware that there is no constitutional basis whatsoever for this demand? And why are they insisting that there is no way for them to gain that position by forming alliances within parliament to ensure that they get that seat?
My reading of the situation is that it is virtually impossible for them to get it, simply because the remaining 22 pro-government loyalists’ seats who cannot conceivably cross a line and support Al-Wefaq. Therefore, and as we have seen, heard and read that the top positions in parliament, including all the other primary positions are all a foregone conclusion: Khalifa Al-Dhahrani has been re-anointed to the position of the Speaker, the 2nd vice-chairmanship has been given to Salah Ali (in place of Adel Al-Mo’awdah who held that position in the previous term, and succumbed to pressure “from above” to give up that position this time for Muslim Brotherhood’s society’s head) while the first vice-chairmanship has been reserved for Al-Wefaq. These positions are so certain that the Royal Court insinuated that the Shura Council’s chair will go to a sectarianaly opposite person, and even though it freed Ali Saleh Al-Saleh – the erstwhile Minister of Municipalities and Agriculture, a Shi’i – and prepared him for the chairmanship of the Shura Council, it did not confirm his position until it was absolutely sure that Al-Dhahrani would take over as the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
This clearly indicates that all positions in both chambers are given on a non-democratic but sectarian basis; if a Shi’i takes over the elected parliament, then a Sunni would take over the selected one and so forth.
This is a rather dangerous situation. This puts into place sectarian norms akin to Lebanon, and maybe this is what the rulers do have in mind, this is their idea of a balancing act. It is – as far as I am concerned – a fallacious sense of fairness. No country can really be run on such sectarian lines, and history as well as current events prove that should that be the conditions adopted, then failure would be awaiting the political institution and the country at every turn.
These are the thoughts that must have been doubly realised within Al-Wefaq’s decision making body, and ones which they must have considered very thoroughly, and this boycott must be their way to force new realities on the political situation in Bahrain. They realised that there is no way for them to affect the outcome of parliament, especially with the resolute defeat of their Wa’ad partners, which effectively put them at a complete disadvantage even though they constitute the largest bloc within parliament. Therefore, this move, cannot be regarded as anything but a political move. They must feel that they have nothing to lose, so they went ahead to try to force the royal court’s hand to try to get them to redress the balance.
Where do we fit in all this?
Lost, is the operative word, added to complete frustration. I personally appreciate Al-Wefaq’s position and am as frustrated as they must be for the continuous meddling by the Royal Court or “influential bodies” into the democratic path that must be taken, but with Al-Wefaq perceivably completely out of parliament and their refusal to take any leadership positions within it, what can we expect from the next four years other than continuous strife, inculcation of more restrictive laws and the explosion of sectarian insensitivities on both sides which might well drag this country finally into violent confrontation?
While I am sure that the blessed Shaikh Al-Jamri’s struggles for democracy, rest his soul, did not give birth to a parliament that he nor the majority of Bahrainis have been looking for, Al-Wefaq’s non-participation the last time around resulted in those heinous laws and regulations. With them effectively out of parliament this time as well, I have no doubt that these restrictions on our freedoms will continue unabated. Apart from the single voice of Abul now, there is no one interested enough to protect our rights, and most certainly – and ironically – their absence will move Bahrain further into the clutches of religious extremism.
Suddenly, I am not looking forward to the next four years.
I would rather the whole Al-Wefaq bloc resign, and the king to call for fresh elections and remove the causes of this stalemate, which are specifically the Bandargate heroes Ahmed Attiyatallah from the cabinet line-up and the implicated Faisal Foulath and Huda Noono from the Shura Council, and immediately mount an independent and transparent investigation into the Bandargate scandal.
I am not asking for these to help or even get Al-Wefaq to participate into the parliamentary process, I don’t particularly care for them, but I recognise that they do represent the majority of Bahrain – 62% to be exact – and I recognise that the only way we can peacefully move forward is by courageously addressing these iniquitous situations.
Failure to do so is a disaster waiting to happen.