Moreover, since the only other opposition society with any real following or hope of winning a seat in the 18 vacant districts--Wa'ad--also announced its decision to boycott a few days ago, the result is almost assuredly an elected parliament composed entirely of Sunni Islamic parties and pro-government "independents" mostly of tribal affiliation. Welcome to 2002-2006.
Word from the rally is that al-Wifaq declared the current parliament altogether invalid; said it will "return to the street [protests] to put pressure on the regime for real reform"; and called for a constitutional assembly or popular referendum on a new constitution.
Speaking afterward with Bloomberg News, Khalil al-Marzuq explained,
"We do not want to participate in an election when the government has no intention of working with us,” Khalil al-Marzooq said in a telephone interview. “All of the revolutions we’ve seen in the Middle East were held by ordinary people, not by parliamentarians. We will still fight for equal rights for the people of Bahrain.” election is final. “We need to see some real political amendments,” he said. ...BBC Arabic did an extended segment on the decision, including video from the Friday rally and an interview with (former) al-Wifaq MP 'Ali al-Aswad.
Al-Marzooq said the decision to boycott the election is final. “We need to see some real political amendments,” he said.
Also worth watching in this regard is the Friday sermon of Sh. 'Isa Qasim titled "How Great is the Scandal of Politics in Bahrain," which paves the way for a boycott.
At this point it should be unnecessary to revisit once again the actual reasons for the boycott. In short, it is the same reason al-Wifaq pulled out of the National Dialogue talks: it demands for "reform" are not some nebulous desire for "change" Obama-style but actually correspond to specific procedural and institutional revisions, namely electoral redistricting to get away from Bahrain's ethnically-gerrymandered districts; election rather than appointment of government ministers, including the prime minister; and empowerment of the parliament such that it has actual lawmaking abilities, as opposed to its current fake lawmaking abilities. Thus the current parliament and electoral scheme represents the very things the opposition most wants to change, so participation now in the very system it seeks to end would be self-defeating.
For a more substantive illustration of the problems associated with the current system, consider this anecdote given in an interview I conducted back in 2009 with a leading member of one of Bahrain's political societies:
We ... attempted to do a study of the actual voters assigned to each district and found that 1/3 we could not locate as living within the region. The way it works is that the government posts the list of names for each district in that district’s polling center (e.g., at a school, etc.) and there are only names and CPR number, from which you can gather the year of birth since the first two numbers of the CPR number are the last two digits of the person’s year of birth. However, you are not allowed to take photos of the names, so if you wanted to check to make sure that all the names were actually people who lived in your district, you have to copy them one by one by hand. And the government only allows a 1 week period in which to contest names of voters in your district, so it is actually impossible to know whether the people assigned to your district actually lives there, and to know who is actually voting or where the votes come from.So not only are the districts themselves gerrymandered such as to limit the ability of opposition societies to win seats, but the registered voters in your district may or may not actually exist at all. Sounds like a process you'd really want to be part of, right?
The official reaction to al-Wifaq's announcement has differed little from the response to its pull-out from the National Dialogue. Speaking with the Bahrain News Agency, Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Sh. Khalid bin 'Ali said:
Those who boycott the upcoming parliament by-elections will have to bear the consequences of their decision. ...And then the best line:
He urged everyone to take part in the elections, saying Bahrain is seeking institutional and consensual work through the legislature. ...
He said there is not a single expert who recommends boycott of elections, considering participation as the ideal way to build trust and achieve progress.Ha! Where are all these election participation experts? I would be interested in meeting one.
In fact, then, his comments seem to be a combination of a threat--this is the same minister after all that attempted to ban al-Wifaq altogether back in April; and that succeeded in shutting down Wa'ad, at least long enough to prosecute Ebrahim Sharif--and a strange appeal to public opinion.
As represented by Al-Watan, the Royal Court, on the other hand, seems to be taking a more subtle tact: screw al-Wifaq, they say, but for God's sake Wa'ad needs to participate, presumably to avoid the realization of the title of this article--a parliament without opposition. The "screw al-Wifaq" line has enough representatives: Yusif Al Bin Khalil, for example:
The more nuanced argument, though, if you can call it that, we find in al-Zayani's column, which takes the form of a sardonic letter to al-Wifaq but ends with the following:
[Al-Wifaq,] You’d better stop your hypocrisy and your hypocritical speeches. Waad, we beg you not to boycott the complimentary elections lest they will be paralyzed! Whenever Al Wefaq boycotts the elections, you follow suite. You behave like puppets that spin within Wefaq’s sphere. Anyway, you have missed a golden opportunity to win a parliament seat due to your blind obedience to Al Wefaq. Finally, we beg your pardon again not to boycott the elections. Otherwise, Bahrain will be paralyzed!So Wa'ad is urged to take part lest it lose out on its grand prize of "a parliament seat." If al-Wifaq was unable over five years to effect serious change with 17 and then 18 of 40 seats, somehow I doubt Wa'ad will be convinced of its chances with 1. As for the other reason it should agree to take part--to avoid "paralyzing" the parliament and electoral process--I think the irony there is clear enough.
The ultimate question, however, is what al-Wifaq's boycott confirmation implies about the progress (or existence) of behind-the-scenes talks between it and the moderate factions within the Al Khalifa that most assume are or were ongoing. About this I had a lengthy debate with several commenters on yesterday's post.
My initial reaction was that the boycott cannot bode well for the progress of high-level talks, since al-Wifaq has relatively little to give the government now that it has announced its decision publicly. This assumes that al-Wifaq cannot on its own put a stop to the continuing daily street protests, which are organized independently by such groups as the Feb. 14 Movement and so on.
The other question, of course, is whether the moderate Al Khalifa factions led by the king and crown prince are even in a position to offer anything substantive to al-Wifaq, whether redistricting, changes to the way ministers are chosen, etc. This is especially so after the outcome of the National Dialogue, whose main upshot was to give the prime minister power of the selection of ministers. Any concession to al-Wifaq on this point from the king would generate a ton of blow back not only from the prime minister and his allies within the ruling family but from the National Unity Gathering and like-minded people.
Indeed, there are already disturbing reports of pro-government "militias" being formed to battle street protesters. The following video, for example, is some sort of promotional video for the "Faruq Militia," whose members are going around and spray-painting over anti-regime graffiti in the Shi'i village of Karzakan. It features nice martial music with gunshots in the background and bears the subtitle "Sunni Black [Ops?] Storm the Shi'i Village of Karzakan, Allowing the Abuses [of Shi'a] but Correcting Some of the Slogans!!" So this is a heartening development..
Related to all this, finally, is the ongoing BICI investigation, more specifically the recent statements of Bassiouni that seem to presuppose the outcome of his inquiry some weeks in advance: that "there was never a policy of excessive use of force or torture...that doesn't mean it didn't happen. I think it was a case of people at the lower level acting, and there not being an effective chain of communication, control."
The backlash that ensued from this premature suggestion that no high-level decision-makers need or will be held accountable prompted a statement from the BICI to the effect that it "has not reached any final conclusions. Its work continues to be independent and free from any interference, either by the government of Bahrain, any other government, or any interest group, either within or outside of Bahrain." Even so, the resignation soon after of several staff along with the group's Secretary General, Kamran Chaudhary, for "personal reasons," raised even more doubts about the chances the commission's findings will leave Bahrainis with the feeling that justice has indeed been done and that society can now begin to put the episode behind it (if such a thing were ever possible).
So how does this relate to al-Wifaq's electoral boycott? It is related because one of the (perhaps naive) hopes surrounding the BICI is that it might work to improve the internal position of the more moderate sections of the Al Khalifa by publicly identifying and shaming those high-ranking officials most responsible for the post-February crackdown. It was, after all, King Hamad himself who took the lead in calling for an independent commission staffed by non-Bahrainis. (The original commission, I was told by someone who knows, was proposed as a Bahraini-only group.) As it seems that this is now very unlikely to happen, the internal ruling family splits remain deep and as intractable as ever, and the window for a possible political agreement with the opposition, in turn, remains slim.
Update: related to the issue of private militias, the Bahrain Mirror is running a popular story titled "Arms, Not the People, are the Basis of Authority" (a riff on al-Wifaq's rally slogan) about supposed secret weapons caches in Jurdab, 'Adliyah, and on the prime minister's personal island of Jiddah said to be part of a parallel military force led by the prime minister and the defense minister to compete directly with the one loyal to the king. I can make no claim to know whether this is entirely true or entirely fabricated, but it makes a good read anyway.