Bahrain is due to hold elections on 24 November for the Council of Representatives of Bahrain’s national assembly, one of the Gulf’s few democratic institutions.
On 24 November, Bahraini citizens will partake in their country’s 2018 parliamentary elections. Voters will select 40 members to the National Assembly’s lower house, known as the Council of Representatives, the only elected body of government in Bahrain. The upcoming election has been condemned by the United Kingdom and EU, as well as human rights groups, due to what is effectively a ban on opposition party participation.
The National Assembly (parliament) consists of 80 total seats, 40 of which are appointed to the Shura Council (upper house) by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and 40 of which are democratically elected to the Council of Representatives (lower house) using a two-round system. The Council of Representatives was formed as the main lawmaking body following the 2002 Constitution. Voters and candidates must be Bahraini citizens and at least 20 years old; as such, non-citizens, who make up more than half of the population, cannot vote. Additionally, women are eligible to run for the lower house seats. Despite the country’s Shia Muslim majority, the current Council of Representatives consists mainly of Sunni Muslims, most without any specific party. Currently, there are 37 members listed as “Independents”, one member representing Al-Menbar party (Sunni Islamists), and two members representing Al Asalah party (Sunni Salafists).
On 13 May 2018, the Shura Council (upper house) approved a constitutional amendment known as the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights, permanently prohibiting election involvement for the following people:
“Felons and persons previously convicted to a prison sentence of six months or more”
“Leaders and members of dissolved political organisations that were dissolved by a final sentence for committing a serious violation of the provisions of the Kingdom’s Constitution or laws”
“Whoever destroys or disrupts the conduct of constitutional or parliamentary life by terminating or leaving the parliamentary work in the Council [of Representatives] or had their membership revoked for the same reason.”
These provisions effectively ban the participation of nearly all of Bahrain’s political opposition groups, thousands of independent activists, and all of those serving prison terms for crimes related to political crimes. Bahrain currently holds up to 4,000 political prisoners. Most prominently, this month (November) a life sentence was handed down to opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, the secretary general of the leading opposition political party, Al-Wefaq, for allegedly spying for Qatar. International election monitors are also banned. On 13 November, western media sources reported that a Bahraini citizen was arrested for tweeting about boycotting the election.
The elections come at a time of economic difficulties for the Kingdom. Early in October, Bahraini legislators voted to approve a Value-Added Tax (VAT) for the first time, coinciding with a joint $10 billion aid package from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates. Officials hope the new tax revenue and funds will work to stabilise and diversify Bahrain’s economy, as a three-year drop in oil prices has weakened economic growth. The country’s GDP is projected to grow 3.2 percent in 2018, down from 3.8 percent in 2017.
The outcome of Bahrain’s 2018 parliamentary elections is unlikely to advance progress in resolving the Kingdom’s political crisis that began with the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. On the contrary, the dissolution of opposition parties and detention of political leaders and activists signals the deepening of divisions and a continued crackdown on political dissent by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Bahraini leadership and gulf-state allies are likely to maintain the narrative that the oppression is necessary to quell the growing regional influence of rival-state Qatar as well as Iran, and opposition parties will continue to boycott the elections, resulting in continued low Shia voter turnout.
Since 2011, perceived economic and political marginalisation has been the paramount driver of violent extremism and civil unrest in Bahrain. The threat from domestic and international terrorist organisations during the elections cannot be discounted. Shia militants will continue to perpetrate low-level violence against security forces. Any large protests and calls for violence during the elections will most likely be met with a robust crackdown by Bahraini security forces, as witnessed in the 2014 elections. Heightened security measures will likely be in place throughout the Kingdom leading up to the elections, especially in Manama, Riffa, and Muharraq. The U.S. Department of State assesses Manama in particular as being a “high-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.”
It is also important to factor in the impacts of the country’s economic instability. While the addition of a Value-Added Tax is likely to spur long-term non-oil revenue growth, it will also weaken short-term consumer spending and confidence, which may play into voters’ decisions. Ultimately, the move is necessary to shore up growing budget deficits.
Remain vigilant and maintain situational awareness when travelling throughout the country, especially in Manama.
Follow media sources and be alert to local developments that may result in travel restrictions on Election Day.
Avoid engaging in dialogue, especially on social media, that may be viewed as politically inflammatory, due to the risk of detention.
Exercise caution and divert away from any encountered large gatherings or protests, due to the elevated risk of police intervention and unrest.
Heed all advice from local authorities.