ON THE face of it, voting has never been easier in Bahrain. Citizens can use a smartphone app to register to vote in the parliamentary elections on November 22nd, and ballot boxes have been organised for citizens abroad. But it will be a skewed event with a pre-ordained result: while the government is laying on free transport to polling stations in some loyalist areas, the National Democratic Opposition Parties, the Shia-led opposition coalition, is boycotting the vote, regarding it as another step toward cementing the rule of the Al Khalifa monarchy.
Under Bahrain’s 2002 constitution (Bahrain is supposedly a constitutional monarchy) legislative power is shared between an elected lower house and a royally-appointed upper one. However political parties must be vetted in order to compete. Gerrymandered constituency boundaries, says the opposition, means it could only win about 18 out of the 40 seats (revised boundaries have reduced this to 16, it argues). In any case, real power rests with the upper house, which has the power to veto legislation.
Opposition MPs resigned in February 2011 (at the height of the Arab spring protests) over the regime’s use of violence against demonstrators. The move was led by al-Wefaq, a liberal Islamist outfit that advocates greater democracy and Shia rights. In a fair election, the opposition might win a majority of seats. Al-Wefaq estimated its popular support at 63% in 2010, and independent experts reckon support for the opposition has risen since then.
But given the boycott, the election will be contested by a range of nominally independent candidates and handful of Salafi and Islamist party members who make up the pro-regime camp. “This is more of a family event than a national event,” says Jawad Fairouz, a former al-Wefaq parliamentarian who was stripped of his Bahraini citizenship in 2012 (an increasingly popular sanction against dissenters in Gulf states) and now lives in London.
Compared with the revolutionary agenda of other Arab uprisings, the Bahraini opposition’s main requests are moderate—it wants an independent judiciary, transparent elections, reform of the security forces and an end to discrimination against Shias by state institutions. But the regime has stalled on the reforms it announced in 2011. These included increasing media freedom and strengthening the rule of law.
The government has made gestures towards increasing accountability, with British assistance, by installing closed-circuit cameras in police stations to deter abuses. Yet this month the Arab Democracy Index, a ranking of nine Arab states by the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative, put Bahrain in last place, below Algeria and Egypt.
In the run-up to the polls, the government announced the suspension of al-Wefaq’s activities for three months, but postponed the measure until after the election. It may have been an attempt to entice the party back to the electoral fold and lend legitimacy to the ballot.
As torture, detention, teargas and the stripping of citizenship continue to be used against those calling for change, some members of the opposition are radicalising. On November 15th around a dozen activists, most of them women, were arrested after calling for a referendum on the legitimacy of the ruling family. The Al Khalifa dynasty’s problems are far from over.