Bahrain election inevitably fails to end crisis

With the opposition refusing to participate and the government mobilising its full PR wing for Bahrain’s 2014 parliamentary elections, a dispute about the figures was always likely. Indeed the government has touted the turnout to be around the 50% mark, whilst the opposition claims it was less than a third, calling government claims “ridiculous”. There has been evidence, notably a study by Bahrain Watch, to suggest that some suspect practices took place to inflate the figures, but a study of figures isn’t needed to tell us that Bahrain remains in a deep political crisis.

Government loyalists have been quick to publish articles claiming, “the myth that the opposition is a majority is over”. A “myth”, it should be noted, that stems from Al Wefaq gaining 67% of the vote in 2010, not to mention the mass participation during various protests over the past few years. But it seems clear that the authorities are engaging in a process of sweeping its past troubles under the carpet, declaring that all is fine because an election took place, albeit without the opposition.

For more than two years there had been increasing concern amongst opposition figures that the government was holding out for this election. That they would refuse to implement any serious reforms and wait for the 2014 elections, in the hope that it would draw a line under the crisis. If the opposition had participated it would have enabled the main political societies to be co-opted into the system, both legitimising the parliament and diminishing their role in street protest. Conversely, if the opposition failed to participate, it would be easy to label them as ‘rejectionists’ who have no serious engagement agenda. Crossing the electoral line, without serious reform, would be a win-win scenario for the government.

In many ways this strategy was a success. The opposition took the decision not to participate and has come under an enormous barrage of pressure from international governments, with Bahrain’s authorities successfully labelling the opposition as rejectionists.

boycott§However, the win-win scenario has failed to materialise in full and a glance at international media headlines about the election feature words such as “chaos”, “violence”, “controversy”, “clashes” and more. What remains clear is that Bahrain is in a deep crisis, and this election has done nothing to change that. The political outlook, as well as the reality on the streets, has not changed in the slightest way since the election took place. Violent clashes remain on the streets, opposition leaders demand democracy, sectarian polarisation continues, activists complain of human rights abuses and more.

This election could never be a solution because it is a part of the problem. Grossly gerrymandered electoral districts electing a weak parliament, in a system dominated by one family, is why this crisis exists. How could doing more of the same ever be considered a solution? All of the PR money in the world cannot hide that Bahrain continues to be locked in a political stalemate, with no fresh ideas for moving forward.

So what could be the solution for Bahrain? In the past 3-and-a-half years the word dialogue has been thrown around so often that it has essentially lost its meaning. What the authorities consider to be a dialogue seems to be very different from the opposition view. So we can continue to use the word dialogue for what Bahrain needs, but to be clear it is a negotiation. The government and the opposition need to negotiate a path that will be acceptable to the people, appeasing their aspirations for a more inclusive political system.

It hasn’t worked thus far, because it is the negotiation aspect to a dialogue that has been so illusive. Negotiation means willing to concede in some areas, something the government has failed to do. Not only is this why all dialogue attempts have ended without a mutually satisfactory conclusion, but ultimately it is why Bahrain is still in crisis. Stakeholders can sit around a table all day and talk about what they want, but if there is no tangible belief that anything will change then frankly it is a useless exercise.

Bahrain doesn’t have time to waste with such processes; a solution is needed before the situation gets further out of hand. In a recent TV interview, Sheikh Ali Salman, Al Wefaq Secretary-General, said ‘there is no guarantee that the situation will remain peaceful in the future’. This is by no means a suggestion that his society intend to break on their pledge of non-violence, but it is an admission that the longer the crisis continues, the more likely frustration will lead to violence, and the less likely it is for Al Wefaq to be able to control it.

This should be obvious and here the international community must take note. There is no doubt that foreign governments wanted the opposition to take part in the election that was made clear. But there is a leap between this and acting as a direct cheerleader for an election, that most Bahrainis rejected, as some international governments did.

The role played by the British Embassy in Bahrain during the Election Day was perhaps the most worrying. Throughout the day their official twitter account (@UKinBahrain) tweeted images of the Ambassador visiting various polling stations and declaring hopes for a large turnout. One has to question how wise it is for a foreign Ambassador to pledge such support for a process that is widely rejected by the local population, whether 30% or 50%. It has launched much anger amongst the people in Bahrain, who see the Ambassadors moves as very clearly putting himself in the camp of the government. It has been suggested that if it were the other way around, it would be akin to the UK Ambassador joining an opposition protest.

The role of the international community should be to use its influence to push for a peaceful political solution, both for Bahrain and for its own interests. A state in crisis cannot be a positive thing for anyone with a stake in Bahrain. Such endorsement of the election is an endorsement of the political system as a whole, and serves to embolden those who wish to further crackdown on democracy protesters.

Already this has been evident, with the raiding of the home of Sheikh Issa Qassim this week. Such a bold move by the authorities suggests a large degree of confidence in their repressive behaviour. The international community must be aware that for every ounce of legitimacy it offers to the government, the more the authorities feel confident to repress rather than reform.

And repression deepens the crisis, whilst reform is the only solution to alleviate it. Bahrain remains deeply troubled and its 2014 parliamentary elections has changed nothing. Serious steps towards a real negotiation are needed; and quickly before the situation gets irreversibly worse.

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