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Bahrain: Elections Mark A Hopeful Start For Democratic Reforms

Bahrain has successfully held its first local elections in three decades after years of friction and intermittent violence between the Sunni-dominated government and the Shiite opposition. RFE/RL looks at how the emirate is trying to build stability through a cautious program of democratic reforms, as well as the chances for success.

Prague, 13 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Bahrain held municipal elections last week with no reports of trouble or violence, making them a hopeful start for the emirate's cautious democratization process.

The Bahraini government reported over the weekend that slightly more than half of all registered voters participated in the 9 May poll, which chose members of the country's five municipal councils. The election filled 30 of the 50 seats, with the remainder to be decided after a second round of polling on 16 May.

The election has attracted wide regional interest because it is Bahrain's first municipal-level election in 32 years. It also marked the first time that women -- who have had the right to vote in the emirate since the 1920s -- entered the lists as candidates.

None of the female candidates took seats in the municipal councils, though, several said afterward they hoped their participation would make it easier for women to win in the future.

The local elections -- which come ahead of a poll to revive Bahrain's long-suspended parliament in October -- are part of a series of democratic reforms announced by Bahrain's ruler Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa to make the emirate a constitutional monarchy. The king, who took power as an absolute monarch after his father Sheikh Isa died in 1999, has said he hopes the steps will increase stability in the country after a recent history of unrest.

The unrest has pitted the Sunni Muslim ruling family against an opposition movement rooted in the emirate's Shiite majority, which makes up some 55 to 65 percent of the population. The tension, which flared into rioting that killed 40 people in the mid-1990s, mostly centers around Shiite demands for a greater role in the decision-making process. That process has long been the monopoly of the al-Khalifa family, which has ruled for more than 200 years and holds all important cabinet seats.

Analysts say it is still too early to judge whether last week's election will lead to greater stability in Bahrain. But they say the fact that it was free of violence is an indication that -- for now -- all sides are engaging in the reform process.

Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at London's Royal United Services Institute, told our correspondent last week's events show that both the opposition and the government now appear to recognize their limits.

"The local election was certainly a success in terms that there was no violence and no fraud and no accusation from any party. I believe it is premature to judge whether the democratic process is a success [based only on last week's election], but there are a lot of encouraging signs that the opposition understands its limits and the government is genuine in trying to introduce some sort of democratic process," Alani said.

The opposition's participation in the reform process comes as the government in recent years has provided an amnesty for political prisoners and opponents who went into exile in the 1980s and 1990s. Several political groups also have been permitted to organize after being banned for decades.

But analysts say the real test for Bahrain's reform process will come in October, when parliamentary elections are held. The election for the parliament -- which was dissolved amid political unrest in 1975 -- is far more sensitive than the municipal elections because the king has irritated opposition leaders by declaring it will be a bicameral legislature. Only one house will be elected, while the other will be appointed by the king himself.

Alani said the bicameral provision raised a storm of protest when it was announced, but since then there have been signs that opposition leaders are gradually accepting the formula. It duplicates an arrangement in Jordan, which many in the region feel works well.

"In the beginning, the opposition really made a lot of protest that the [bicameral system] is not a democratic system, but the fact is that the Jordanian experience is exactly the same and is considered to be a success. And the opposition has reached a conclusion that they cannot ask for more than that in a traditional society and in the regional environment," Alani said.

Alani said he expects the opposition now will seek to make a strong showing in the October elections with the intention of changing the bicameral system later if it proves too limiting.

"So they have accepted what the king has put on the table at this stage, and if there is a problem they will make a protest that there is a fault in the system. But I believe that at this stage the opposition has no option but to play the game according to the government rules, and I believe it will be a success for at least a few years and then, if there is a need for change, it will come after an initial five years, possibly," Alani said.

By instituting its cautious program of democratic reforms, the government hopes to put an end to past unrest that not only complicated Bahrain's domestic situation but also saw the emirate regularly charge Iran with meddling in its affairs.

In the 1980s and mid-1990s, Bahrain accused Iran of seeking to export its Islamic Revolution by fueling sentiments among the emirates' Shiites that they should seize power from a Sunni royal family that discriminated against them. In 1981 and 1996, the Bahraini government said it had uncovered Iranian-backed coup attempts. That fueled fears throughout the region that Iran was seeking to overthrow Arab Gulf monarchies.

But recent years have seen such tensions decline markedly as the Persian Gulf's economic superpower, Saudi Arabia, has built up a good working relationship with Iran largely based on coordinating their oil-pricing strategies. Analysts say that has helped reassure Bahrain's royal family that Iran no longer seeks to support revolution in the region and that the emirate can now safely try to accommodate its opposition rather than suppress it.