Bahrain’s newly elected parliament has convened for its first session and the majority of seats are filled with new faces.
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Salman al-Khalifa officially opened parliament on Sunday, telling its members of the importance of the role of the youth and to “concentrate on the better future they aspire to achieve”.
This time around, Bahrainis elected only four candidates who align themselves with either Sunni or Shia political societies; three MPs representing Sunni political societies were elected while the fourth belongs to the Al Rabitah society, a religious Shia group. The remaining 36 incoming members of parliament all ran as independents.
For the first time since 2006, none of the seats will filled by the Shia-led opposition al-Wefaq political society. The group, which held 18 seats in the previous parliament, boycotted the election.
Under existing laws, political parties are officially banned in Bahrain as is the case in the rest of the Arab Gulf countries. The key element of the law is that associations can’t align themselves, or receive funds, from any political group outside of the country.
The recent vote was Bahrain’s first full legislative elections since the island kingdom experienced a wave of street protests nearly four years ago.
While the voter turnout in the final round of the elections was not made public, authorities said that 51.5 percent of registered voters came out during the first round. However, some opposition groups placed that number as low as 30 percent.
“It was clear that the government has appeased the most prevalent grievances in the country, creating a platform conducive for sustainable change,” Salman AlJalahma, Bahrain’s media attaché based in Washington DC, told Al Jazeera.
Some of those concessions cited by the Bahraini government are the policy changes giving the incoming parliament more legislative powers. As a result of a framework of outcomes put forth by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in September, parliament has the right to approve the appointment of the government’s cabinet, and the right to seek amendments to – or reject – the government’s “annual plan”.
It will also have unprecedented powers to question the actions of ministers, including the prime minister and his deputies.
The changes have not appeased Bahrain’s critics. “For true power-sharing to occur, the requirement is simple: The ruling family ought to be a lot more selective of what it intends to preserve, and accommodate its citizens’ desire to participate in the process,” said Joseph Kechichian, a political analyst specialising in Gulf relations and senior columnist at Gulf News.
Mansoor Arayedh, chairman of the Gulf Council for Foreign Relations, warned that too much change could irk Bahrain’s Gulf neighbours. “We are very much connected to the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and we cannot afford to evolve within [that] context,” said Arayedh, who is also a former member of Bahrain’s upper-house parliament.
Bahrain watchers say the rise of independents mirrored neighbouring Kuwait’s elections nearly two years ago. “There are parallels in that the absence of traditionally popular opposition figures left spaces for new figures, including independents and women,” said Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House in London.
A total of six women were voted into public service in this year’s national polls, the most female winners since elections started in 2002.
“It’s difficult to tell whether the higher number of independents would help or fit, but we do know that this is a reflection of what the majority of citizens want,” said AlJalahma. “In the past, we saw political societies politicise every event, to further their own cause rather than what is best for the country.”
“Perhaps the fact that the independents are not affiliated with any particular sect, it will help refocus parliament to the pressing matters of citizens,” he said.
For years the main opposition in Bahrain has campaigned for a greater role in government. While the lower-house is elected by the people, the upper-house parliament, known locally as the Shura Council, is appointed by the king and had veto power over lower-house legislative initiatives.
“That message was clear: While the upper house of parliament can nullify what lower-house legislators propose, [Bahrainis] prefer far more independence than they have had,” added Kechichian.
Bahrain’s political rivals have been invited to disucss their differences through a national dialogue process that has fallen apart several times over the past four years. The Shia population has long demanded more rights and freedoms, while their political arm, al-Wefaq, continues to advocate for a constitutional monarchy.
When Al-Wefaq decided to boycott this year’s election, they said it was in response to what it called continuing “brutal repression” by the government. “How can we go for elections while our loved ones are still behind bars or exiled?,” said Abdulridha Zuhair, a former MP for al-Wefaq.
The Bahraini government says that the opposition groups are placing their personal interests above national consensus. “Unfortunately, we have seen the abuse of the democratic model, where their [Shia] participation was used as a political bargaining chip rather than a meaningful attempt to instil change through consensus,” said AlJalahma.
“We were part of the political process in the parliament and we haven’t seen any seriousness in the regime in Bahrain to solve important issues like discrimination, social justice, jobs for Bahrainis and housing issues,” Ali Al Aswad, a member of al-Wefaq and a former MP, told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story. Al Aswad also added his party can no longer partake in a political system that he calls “non-inclusive”.
The boycott means that opposition groups – especially al-Wefaq – risk being shut out.
“They lost a big opportunity to be part of the new parliament and an increasing possibility for change. Had they put forth candidates and won seats, they could’ve also polished their image with some sections of society that are sceptical of them, mainly the Sunnis, and gained some support,” Yacoub al-Slaise, a founding member of Bahrain’s al-Fateh Youth Coalition, a group that supports further political and judicial reform while keeping the monarchy intact.