Bahrain is a near-absolute monarchy founded by, in the words of one of our co-bloggers, “pirates that admired Maria Theresa’s bust on thalers.” In 1971, the British withdrew their protection, and the monarchy chose not to join the UAE. In 1973, it got a constitution creating an elected parliament. In 1975, that constitution was suspended. In 2002, as part of a reconciliation that included a 2001 amnesty for political exiles, a new constitution revived the 40-member elected lower house of parliament. Its powers are limited, however: the upper house is appointed, and the Prime Minister serves at the pleasure of King Hamad, not the Parliament. Prime Minister Khalifa bin Sulman Al Khalifa is the nephew of King Hamad, and has been in office since 1971.
Elections are run by district with a runoff between the top two candidates if nobody wins an outright majority. Political parties remain, strictly speaking, illegal, but the Political Societies Act of 2005 allows for the formation of registered “political societies” which function for all intents and purposes as political parties. The distribution of seats after the 2006 elections was as follows: Wifaq (17 seats), Asala (8), Minbar Al Islami (7), and Mustaqbal (4). New elections were held on October 2010. The results were Wifaq (18 seats), Asala (3), Minbar Al Islami (2), and 17 all-Sunni independents.
Courtesy of Wikileaks, we know what the U.S. embassy thinks of the political organizations currently active in Bahraini politics. Since Bahrain is both a country that I like and made the front page of the New York Times today, what follows is a condesation of “The Field Guide to Bahraini Political Parties.”
Wifaq: the leading Shia party. The leadership consists mostly of people exiled during the unrest of the 1990s, who returned after a 2001 amnesty. The party’s nominal leader is Ali Salman, a mid-level cleric, but the real leader is the country’s most popular Shia cleric, Isa Qassim. Wifaq demands a Westminster-style constitutional monarchy. The party also attempts to combat anti-Shia discrimination, both through legislation and street demonstrations.
Asala: the State Department calls Al-Asala the “Salafist” party. The party itself, however, “says its goals are to increase the standard of living for Bahrainis; strengthen political, social and economic stability; and enhance financial and administrative oversight of the government and industry.” It is, however, adamantly opposed to women’s rights, which are rather advanced in the Kingdom. The State Department had this to say about the party’s leader: “Ghanim Albuanain strikes emboffs [sic] as rational and open-minded, though many of his followers are not.” Most Bahrainis, reports the Department, believe that the monarchy supports the party against Wifaq.
Minbar: the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Minbar seeks a personal status law that conforms to Sharia and is acceptable to both sects” and “does not allow its female members to stand for election.” As with Asala, it is widely rumored that the monarchy and the Islamic banking sector provide finance. In 2006, it was caught in a vote-buying scandal, although no one was prosecured. (The whistle-blower was a British fellow named Salah Al Bandar, who had been serving as an advisor to the Bahraini government. He was sent home forthwith.)
Mustaqbal: the State Department had only this to say: “The bloc bills itself as the only secular grouping in parliament, though all four members are Sunni. It votes reliably for the government and its leader, Adel Al Asoomi, is close to the Prime Minister.”
There are a few other parties without seats. Wa’ad is a socialist party formed by returning exiles in 2002. It is a strong proponent of women’s rights as is generally moderate, with support from both Sunni and Shia, although its leader, Ebrahim Sharif, courted a bit of an international scandal in July 2008 when he said nice things about Hezbollah. The Al Minbar Progressive Democratic Society (APDS) is the former Communist Party. It won 3 seats in Parliament in 2002, but lost them to Wifaq in 2006. A bigger blow came in 2008, when it lost control of the General Federation of Trade Unions to Wifaq. Al Meethaq won 5 seats in 2002, but lost them to Wifaq and Minbar in 2006.
The Adala National Justice Movement is loud, but not to be taken seriously. “The society initially focused its criticism on the U.K. and Iran, but now devotes all its energy to exposing the horrors of U.S. imperialism. Abdulla Hashim has a real talent for attracting local and international media coverage for his stunts, such as an April 26, 2008, demonstration near the U.S. Navy base here that featured the beheading of a mannequin dressed to represent a U.S. Marine. Despite their media profile, however, Adala has never produced more than 80 people at one of its demonstrations.” Hashim was beaten by a Minbar candidate in the 2006 election.
Finally, there is Haq. Hasan Mushaima, a founder of Wifaq, left to found Haq in November 2005. From the start, Haq has defied the requirements for registration of political societies. Haq opposes the 2002 constitution on the grounds that it rescinded liberties granted by the 1973 constitution. Moreover, the King drafted it unilaterally and (unlike the 1973 constitution) it provides for an appointed upper house of parliament. Haq’s top public goal is a new constitution for Bahrain drafted by elected delegates.
The rest I’ll leave in State’s own words. “Since Haq competes with Wifaq for the same Shi a supporters, Haq gains support whenever Wifaq is perceived as unsuccessful in parliament. When Wifaq is successful, Haq loses popularity. Post [sic] and the public perceive Haq as inspiring many of the small gangs of Shia youth who throw stones and Molotov cocktails at police almost every weekend. Haq has submitted petitions to the U.N., the USG, and the GOB calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation and condemning the GOB’s human rights record. Abduljalil Al Singace, Haq’s public affairs and media specialist, has contacts with U.S.-based and international NGOs and media outlets. GOB officials often assert that the Iranian regime controls Haq supporters, however has yet to provide post with convincing evidence.”
Do you want to know more? One day, Luke will tell you!