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An unfulfilled bargain: The pitfalls of nascent democratisation in Bahrain. By Matthew Powell

by on October 23, 2011

Until The Arab Spring the Gulf monarchies, despite achieving rapid modernisation, remained impregnable to any real political change. In a period of massive political upheaval in the post-Cold War era, the Gulf monarchies successfully weathered a storm of intense scrutiny both inside and outside their borders. Since the demise of Ben Ali, Mubarak and now Gaddafi, the consequences of resisting change have become increasingly salient.

ForBahrainthe current political climate has been even more pertinent. The Al-Khalifas,Bahrain’s ruling family, like other monarchies in the region have established a ‘ruling bargain’ with their people. The premises of such bargains are simple: the public sacrifice their political influence for economic, social and often religious benefits. The rulers in the UAE impose little to no tax on their people and King Abdullah ofSaudi Arabiapromises to uphold Islam in the country.

The Al Khalifa’s bargain is built on shaky foundations however.Bahrainis unique in that its ruling family does not within the society and is a member of the Sunni minority. The Al Khalifa family are originally fromQatar, thus many see this as the reason behind the politicised nature of the population who established a National Congress in 1923 and called for a legislative assembly in 1938 and 1954.

WhenBahraingained independence in 1961 the calls for representation and participation were more vociferous than ever. In a speech after independence was established, Shaykh Isa bin Salman promised the people that frameworks important for political participation would be erected. Such measures were needed to provide legitimacy for a ruling family not of Bahraini origin. This formed the ruling bargain in the country. It has been the failure of the Al Khalifas in holding up their end of the bargain that has led to the uprisings in 2011.

Bahrainis the perfect example of the pitfalls of nascent democratisation in theMiddle East. Joseph Kostiner believed that a monarch can undermine their position of authority by subjugating themselves to a constitution or at the very least raising expectations of one. The Bahraini people have called for and expected real political liberalisation for years, especially after they gained independence but these hopes have never been realised. The real failure of the Al Khalifah has been raising these expectations

Hopes for democracy were augmented after independence. Opposition were given an audience with King Hamad more frequently, political prisoners who had been taken during violent episodes in the 1990s were released within a day of his tenure and women were given the right to vote.

When committees began to draft amendments to the 1973 constitution prior to its implementation, the Al Khalifah, in the eyes of the people had subjugated themselves to a constitution and raised expectations. A National Charter was also drawn up which statedBahrainshould become a constitutional kingdom with a legislative body. The charter was approved by 98% of the people in a referendum. After this seemingly unstoppable wave of reform and liberalisation came even more popular decisions from the new King. The repressive State Security Law andState Security Courtwere abolished. The ability of the state to crush uprisings and commit atrocious abuses to human rights was over. Political participation or activism could, apparently, now go ahead without being crushed by the iron fist of the Al Khalifah’s security services.

Such rapid change was difficult to maintain for the government. The ruling family took a U-turn over the constitution as the National Charter took on a new role that allowed King Hamad to sustain his absolute power. As the public became aware of this his reputation of being a reformer disappeared as quickly as it had emerged.

The largest political societies in the country, al-Wifaq and The National Democratic Action Society boycotted the first parliamentary elections in 2002.  J.E Peterson captured the mood at the time: ‘It was perceived that if the people caved in on the question of the constitution at the beginning the government would have won and could find it harder to enter the arena in the future.’

The failure of the first election was followed by The Bandargate Affair of 2006 that shattered the integrity ofBahrain’s political system. An employee of the government leaked documents that highlighted the corruption in the government and its desire to fix the elections. It was claimed that US$2.7 million of bribes were dispersed to manipulate the results of elections.

The 2010 elections did little to foster any trust in the supposedly democratic system. A massive crackdown, particularly on the Shias, was a deliberate attempt by the government to make al-Wifaq boycott the election. Two hundred and fifty arrests were made after riots resulting from the conviction of 7 people for killing a policeman. It was clear that in the run up to the election that the incredible optimism once felt in the country had been replaced by severe tension. The election itself was marred by claims by al-Wifaq that many of their supporters were not allowed to vote, 890 in total. Even the Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ali Al Khalifa confirmed there had been some ‘irregularities’.

The Bahraini people have rightly demanded political participation after the Al Khalifah declared their commitment to achieving this goal. The three elections that have been held in Bahrain, which many see as impressive, have not been free or fair and the people are electing a legislature with limited power. To elect a national parliament is unheard of in many Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, but for the Bahraini people to have a representative body sitting alongside the ruling family has been their unfulfilled right since 1961. The violent uprisings that King Hamad sought to avoid have returned at times when broken promises are made apparent. The protests at the Pearl Roundabout inManamabeginning in February 2011 are an example of the Bahraini populations’ reaction to a continuous wave of betrayals and the Al Khalifah’s refusal to maintain their ruling bargain.

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