[The following is an overview of last week’s parliamentary elections in Bahrain that Ala’a Shehabi wrote for Bahrain Watch on 26 November 2014.]
On Saturday 22 November, Bahrain held parliamentary elections. Bahrain Watch looks at the significance of these elections in relation to the political system as a whole and evaluates the election using basic principles from the IDEA’s Book on International Electoral Standards. We find critical breaches of international electoral standards, in particular, the absence of the “one person one vote” principle, restrictions on independent oversight, and questionable inducements to vote. We also note that due to concentration of power away from elected institutions, the people’s ability to exercise power through voting is severely limited.
Elections in Context of an Authoritarian Political System
An electoral system has three main tasks; to translate the votes cast into seats won in a legislative chamber; to act as the conduit through which the people can hold their elected representatives accountable; to give incentives to those competing for power to frame their appeals to the electorate in distinct ways. In divided societies, for example, where language, religion, race or other forms of ethnicity represent a fundamental political cleavage, particular electoral systems can reward candidates and parties who act in a cooperative, accommodating manner to rival groups, or they can punish these candidates and instead reward those who appeal only to their own group. (IDEA Electoral Standards, p22)
The democratic struggle in Bahrain is grounded in the idea of a popular constitution. Bahrain’s 1973 Constitution established a unicameral, elected parliament, but was rescinded by the Emir in 1975. In 2002, the king unilaterally promulgated a new constitution, which was a modified version of a charter approved by the people. The 2002 Constitution established a parliament with two chambers: an appointed upper chamber and an elected lower chamber.
A number of concerns have been raised about the framework established by the 2002 Constitution:
- The King has broad legislative, executive and judicial authority. For example, he appoints the prime minister, judges, as well as members of the upper chamber of Bahrain’s parliament. Since both chambers of parliament must approve legislation, this means that legislation, including constitutional amendments, cannot be passed unless the king’s representatives vote in favor. The king may also declare martial law, and unilaterally pass certain types of regulations.
- Lack of universal and equal suffrage through gerrymandering of electoral districts. “One clear international standard which must be provided for is the guarantee of universal and equal suffrage to each adult citizen.” (IDEA Electoral Standards, p34). Bahrain does not have the principle of “one person, one vote,” as the electoral districts are of unequal size. Recently, the king promulgated new electoral boundaries, however these new districts still do not have equal numbers of voters. One district (Northern 11), has five times as many voters as one of the nother districts (Southern 10).
- Social demographic engineering. Many have alleged that foreigners have been “naturalised in order to be enfranchised and vote in Bahraini elections.” Numbers are difficult to verify but are estimated in tens of thousands.
Elections in the Context of a Flawed Electoral System
The following are some notable concerns regarding international elections standards:
- The Electoral Management Body is linked to the King. Electoral Management Bodies should “operate in a manner that ensures the independent and impartial administration of elections” (IDEA Electoral Guide, p38). The Directorate of Election and Referendum is the body responsible for conducting Bahrain’s elections. It is headed by the minister of justice; the minister is appointed by the king. The Elections Executive Director stated that Bahrain’s elections “are not in need of any international observers.“ According to Bahrain Transparency Society (BTS) their request to allow International monitors was rejected, though they were allowed to send domestic monitors. A recurring issue, emphasized by BTS is the use of mass polling stations. It is generally recommended that electors should not exceed 1500 per polling station. The UK’s Electoral Commission stipulates that “the number of electors allocated to a particular polling station should not exceed 2,500.” There were forty local polling stations, and thirteen general polling stations in Bahrain. Local polling stations were allocated a very large number of electors, for example, 12,341 were allocated to Northern (11), and 10,695 electors were allocated to Capital (7). In a general polling station, (shopping mall and airport are some examples) any elector from any district in Bahrain can vote in any general polling station, therefore not placing an upper limit at all. Based on the published figures of the government, twenty-eight percent of all votes were cast in mass ballot centres. This number is not independently verified. However the use of mass polling stations is very difficult to monitor and numbers related to turnout would be difficult, if not impossible to observe given the additional issue of the absence of voter register in the following point.
- Voter register scrutiny absent. “Transparency requires that voter registers be public documents that can be monitored and made available for inspection at no cost to the requester” (IDEA Electoral Standards, p46). Voter registers are not publicly available—BTS requested voter registers several times, but were not given a copy. Given that deceased citizens and those whose citizenships have been revoked were sent invitations to vote, the reliability of voter registers is in question, as well as their vulnerability to deliberate manipulation. BTS also found a number of registered voters were turned away at the polls. The absence of robust observation of the electoral process can compound concerns about results released by the government—for example, the government claimed 49,553 voters reached the legal voting age of twenty and voted for the first time in the 2014 elections, whereas the 2010 Census counted 59,657 individuals between the ages of fifteen and nineteen.
- State influence on candidacy. “No party or candidate (especially the ruling party) is favoured, financially or otherwise through the availability or use of state resources, over the other parties and all stakeholders in the election process have an equal chance of success.” (IDEA Electoral Standards p56). Bahrain Watch notes the following concerns in this area:
- Media bias. Pro-government publications regularly fabricate news with impunity, including about members of parliament. The opposition is also limited in its access to state media.
- Campaign funding. In the past, it was alleged that government ministers funded candidates. These allegations have not been investigated, so such interference may be continuing without any accountability.
- Endorsement of candidates by members of the Royal Family. The foreign minister, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, used his Twitter account to endorse candidates. In contrast, ruling families in some other monarchies like the UK strive to maintain national unity through political neutrality.
- State influence on voters: “That voters have been able to vote freely, without interference, fear, undue influence, bribery or intimidation” (IDEA Electoral Standards p56). Bahrain Watch is concerned with the following practices:
- Before the election, the government proposed to condition eligibility for government jobs and services on electoral participation, and issued a statement that was interpreted as a threat to remove the right to vote in the future for any of those who failed to vote in this election.
- The government conducted a survey of voters before the elections to gauge their intentions on voting.
- The Capital Governorate hosted a religious preacher in a government building; in his speech, the preacher claimed that participation in the elections was a religious duty.
- Those who voted in the elections were entered into a raffle, where they could win one of twenty iPhone 6 smartphones. Such inducements to vote are a concern where elections are unfair, because the act of participating in an unfair election bolsters those in power.
- The government repressed protests and arbitrarily arrested more than sixty people in the week preceding the election, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Additionally, several organisers and individuals who decided to hold an alternative “self determination” vote were arrested in the run up to the elections.
- Reports have emerged that fifteen security officers have been called to appear before a special committee for their failure to vote. This cannot be verified but adds to fears that security officers may have been directed to vote.
Unfair and Unfree Elections in a Flawed Political System
In the context of Bahrain’s political system, where elected bodies hold little power, electoral districts are unfair, and elections are seen as vulnerable to manipulation, voting for any candidate lends legitimacy to the existing power structure. The higher the electoral turnout, the greater the legitimacy. Although maximizing electoral turnout would be laudable in the case of free and fair elections, the government’s aggressive inducements to vote in this case seem to be grounded in self interest rather than the national interest.
When deciding to participate in an election is more important to a government than which way you vote, basic transparency and integrity measures can be turned into tools of repression. For example, voters in Bahrain receive a stamp in their passport when they vote. While this can prevent double voting, the stamp can also be turned into a mark of “loyalty” that can be easily demanded and checked by employers, universities, or others.
Overall, Bahrain’s latest election seems to be more an instrument for the government to exercise control over the people, rather than the people over the government.