Monday, October 13, 2014

Bahrain's New Electoral Districts:
No Help for the Opposition; Bad for Troublesome Sunnis

It's been a while since I've had a chance to write here properly, and if I had more time and resources it would be nice to sustain Stephen Colbert-style coverage of the impending shit-storm that is likely to be Bahrain's November parliamentary elections.  The main headline from today (or yesterday) is the opposition bloc's decision to boycott, yet such a decision was but a formality following, among other things, yet another unilateral redrawing of Bahrain's electoral constituencies announced in late September, ostensibly to make them more "equal in size."   

I will spare readers all the details of the change, a visual depiction of which can be found at Al-Wasat, but the upshot is that the Central Governorate has been dissolved and its constituencies distributed among the remaining four regions: Al-Muharraq, Capital, Northern, and Southern.  The claimed purpose, again, was to "equalize" the constituencies in line with opposition demands, and in accordance with the crown prince's latest dialogue framework announced Sept. 18, one element of which is "[a] commitment to re-defining electoral districts to ensure greater representation and measures to further enhance electoral oversight."

So, then, what is the opposition so upset about?

As with many things, the problem here is the imprecise use of language, or perhaps more accurately the (deliberate) use of imprecise language.  While it is true that the new changes do address differences in size among districts -- the Justice Minister has claimed that now "90% of the districts are approximately equal in size," whatever that means -- it is obvious that this was never the question of primary concern to the opposition.  Rather, the question revolves around the communal representativeness of the districts, which, even in their new iteration, are drawn along sectarian geographical boundaries and thus are almost certain to produce a parliament that is not reflective of Bahrain's national-level demographic and thus political landscape.

This result is evident from the map below, which superimposes Bahrain's 2010 electoral district winners on a sectarian demographic map of the country.

Indeed, the now-dissolved Central Governorate, based around the confessionally-mixed 'Isa Town, was arguably the most diverse of all Bahrain's regions.  Now, its neighborhoods have been divided carefully between the Sunni-dominated Southern Governorate (whose seats increased from 6 to 10), Shi'a-dominated Northern Govenorate (9 to 12), and more mixed Capital Govenorate (8 to 10).  Muharraq retains its original 8 districts; more on this below.  Finally, boundaries in remaining districts have been shifted considerably; more on this later as well.

After studying the changes, al-Wifaq has concluded that its electoral prospects are entirely unchanged: in the latest vote it contested, 2010, it ran candidates in only 18 of 40 districts in recognition that it could not hope to win in the other Sunni-dominated 22.  Last month, 'Ali Salman confirmed that the group's calculations remain the same, saying it is inevitable that 22 seats will be filled by pro-government candidates.

Al-Wifaq does not seem to be the only -- or even primary -- political target of the changes, however. While the group's chances have been neither improved nor harmed, the same cannot be said of troublesome Sunni MPs.  For instance, the outspoken anti-government Osama al-Tamimi, whose business famously was shot up in 2012 after he called for a corruption investigation into the prime minister on the floor of parliament, represented 'Isa Town in the former Central Governorate, and it is unclear how the changes will affect his prospects.  And Wa'ad also traditionally has enjoyed strong support in this mixed Sunni-Shi'i area, Muneera Fakhro nearly winning Wa'ad's only-ever seat here in 2006. (Incidentally, it will be interesting to see how the state reacts to Wa'ad's September reaffirmation of Ebrahim Sharif as Secretary General. The Justice Ministry had threatened the group with dissolution in the case of his re-election.)

The story is similar for Sunni Islamist candidates, which is sure to please not only the U.S. but also the Muslim Brotherhood-hating Saudis.  Although the Islamist stronghold of Muharraq was spared redistricting, it was, on the other hand, the only governorate not to gain seats.  At the same time, Islamist candidates in the South now face greatly-expanded local electorates, as the region takes on additional neighborhoods to correct its especially low elector-to-MP ratio. No longer will candidates be able to depend on localized bases of support in and around Riffa.  Three-term Salafi firebrand Jassim al-Sa'idi, for instance, now faces an uphill battle against fellow MP Khamis al-Rumaihi, the two being forced through the new changes to contest the same seat in the 8th Southern district.

Indeed, the implications for Sunnis are such that even the pro-government (and I would guess Crown Prince-linked) advocacy group Citizens for Bahrain is forced to concede that "it is unclear whether the societies belonging to the Al-Fateh Coalition will succeed in forming a political bloc. The change in constituency boundaries seems to have complicated this process." (For more, see this quite informative district-by-district analysis of the electoral changes.)

On the other hand, pro-government independents, including tribesmen and minority MPs useful in demonstrating Bahrain's commitment to diversity, will continue to do well.  Notwithstanding the government's claim that its motivation for redistricting was to make electoral districts more "equal in size," famed 'first-female-MP-in-the-Gulf' Lateefa Gaood's manufactured 10th district in the barren Southern Governorate desert remains intact, along with all 750 or so of its registered voters. I guess hers is one of the remaining 10% of unequal districts the Justice Minister was talking about.

This conclusion -- that Bahrain's new electoral districts seem aimed at Sunnis as much as at Shi'a -- speaks to a larger truth increasingly evident both in Bahrain as well as around the Gulf and indeed the Middle East generally: growing international (i.e., U.S.) concern over the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and support for it among Gulf populations.  This offers Gulf leaders newfound diplomatic leverage over an American policy often at odds with their own strategic calculations since 2011, and it also relegates further to the back burner intermittent American concern over human rights abuses, lack of reform, and so on. (The implicit threat of gravitation toward Russia and other Asian powers also seems to be a preferred Bahraini tactic these days.)

For now, the U.S. needs redoubled access to strategic military facilities in the region, intelligence gathering and sharing, and commitment by Gulf states to help fight ISIS at home and at least pay lip service to Western-led intervention against it in Iraq and Syria.  On the other hand, one suspects that U.S. policymakers are influenced by an increasingly dampened appetite for political reform that, in the eyes of uninformed State Department officials in Washington, may well pave the way for the empowerment of Islamists more or less sympathetic to ISIS. (See the recent U.S. about-face in Egypt, where Kerry seems to visit now on a weekly basis with nary a mention of the domestic political situation.)

In the case of Bahrain, I am told by a reliable source that the U.S. has now firmly gone over to the British camp of supporting modest, ultimately meaningless political change at the margins. "This is politics," one Bahraini political figure was reportedly told by an American official, with reference to the U.S. need for Bahraini support on ISIS.  Despite apparently intending originally to remain in Bahrain to see through the Crown Prince's newest dialogue initiative and pre-electoral negotiations, it seems that Ambassador Krajeski now will return to Washington before the November vote.  (Now largely a moot point anyway with the opposition boycott.)

Thus, rather than implement the spirit of the five-point reform plan announced by Crown Prince Salman on Sept. 18, which included (admittedly vague) provisions not only on electoral redistricting but also changes in the areas of legislative authority, cabinet formation, the judiciary, and the security sector, instead it seems that Bahrain is faced with yet another fait accompli à la the National Action Charter more than a decade ago: delineation of a comprehensive liberalization strategy cautiously welcomed by the opposition along with the vast majority of society, followed by unilateral execution of selective aspects of the proposed reforms, renewing widespread disillusion and confirming citizens' original suspicions.

Update: Shortly after I posted here, the (I presume) Crown Prince-linked advocacy group Citizens for Bahrain, whose district-by-district analysis of electoral changes I reference above, posted a long response to my article apparently pointing out all its flaws and exhorting me, who is not even allowed to enter Bahrain much less a local stakeholder, to "give the reforms a chance."  While I don't typically engage in these sorts of back-and-forths, I will in this case in the hope that it will help avoid similar confusion and/or deliberate misreading.

The main charge is that I base my analysis on a biased measuring stick, namely the extent to which the reforms will aid al-Wifaq's electoral chances.  In fact, my point was that the opposition's underlying aim in pushing for electoral reforms was to achieve electoral districts that would allow it to compete on a fair footing through elections, i.e. to win seats in parliament in proportion to its relative support among the population.  Yet, before and after the changes, a party with a nominal constituency of at least 50% of voters (to use a  conservative lower bound) chooses voluntarily to forego competition in 22 (55% of) districts for knowledge, not that it will face a difficult electoral competition, but that it has utterly no chance of winning on account of demographic composition.  The upshot is that opposition societies, in agreeing to participate, must accept beforehand that they will always be a minority in parliament irrespective of their actual support in society. 

Citizens for Bahrain extols the reforms as visionary and more "radical" than anyone could have anticipated, and rue the fact that Bahraini elections inevitably turn around sectarian identity.  Yet such is a direct, predictable consequence of the single-member districts employed in the electoral system.  It is well-known that this system -- such as seen in the United States and Britain -- systematically reduces the number of viable political parties, since, unless they have very localized bases of support (the Scottish Nationalist Party in Britain, e.g.) smaller parties simply have no chance of winning.  Consider again the electoral history of Wa'ad, which earned between 5% and 10% of the total vote in 2006 and 2010 yet did not win a single seat.

If the Crown Prince wants to institute truly "radical" electoral reform, then scrap the single-member districts in favor of any number of other electoral systems and rules -- proportional representation, party lists, etc. -- many of which are designed precisely for use in contested environments.  We can agree on one thing, that Bahrain would be far better served if parliament included the spectrum of views represented in society, the most liberal of which today are weeded out by the electoral system itself. Unilaterally redrawing districts in a way designed to favor certain constituencies (independents), harm others (Sunni Islamists), and leave the electoral chances of others largely unchanged (the opposition) is not radical or progressive reform. (And, as it took al-Wifaq only a day to calculate its electoral hopes under the new system, do not pretend that the state did not do the same in redrawing the lines.)

A second point Citizens for Bahrain make is that I chalk up the new changes to some U.S. conspiracy to disenfranchise Sunni Islamists.  Here I think less needs to be said in response since this is a strange reading I assume not shared by many.  I was making two points: 1) as acknowledged by the group itself, it seems clear that one target of the reforms was Sunni Islamist candidates, which is likely to please Saudi Arabia given recent tension over the usually well-represented (in parliament) Muslim Brotherhood in Bahrain, as well as the U.S.; and 2) that by all accounts the United States has resigned itself to the relatively limited electoral reforms in lieu of pushing for something more substantive, partly because they need Saudi and Bahraini support on ISIS. 

Finally, the group notes that Osama al-Tamimi is not running for re-election, which I did not know and which is too bad since he seems like a funny guy. On the other hand, I did not suggest that getting rid of him was the "sole intention" of government in dissolving the Central Governorate; rather, I wrote that "the outspoken anti-government Osama al-Tamimi ... represented 'Isa Town in the former Central Governorate, and it is unclear how the changes will affect his prospects." Misinterpret much?

Update 2: In its latest effort to drum up popular enthusiasm for -- or more likely, given that it writes in English, international appreciation of -- Bahrain's upcoming elections, Citizens Bahrain has published what it calls the "definitive guide" to the parliamentary vote.  Without subscribing to the group's conclusions about the substantive significance of the vote, or about the "appropriateness" of Bahrain's bicameral system in which the unelected Shura Council maintains veto power over legislation, one can nonetheless praise the comprehensiveness of the guide, which breaks down the race in some detail in each of the 40 districts.

Some interesting facts: Bahrain will be without the famed Lateefa al-Gaood, who has apparently tired of representing her non-existent constituents in the South; and Jassim al-Sa'idi has already frightened his opponent, a sitting MP of some renown, into withdrawing.  Finally, al-Asalah has broken ranks with the National Unity Gathering folks, who are on the other hand coordinating with al-Manbar, no doubt renewing speculation about the NUG's links with the Brotherhood in Bahrain.

Finally, if some intrepid individual were to compute the average number of registered voters per governorate, and in Sunni- vs. Shi'i-dominated districts, that would be interesting to see.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. @BHPoliticsBlog do you really believe US is fighting ISIS? can't they just tell/order/ask their allies to stop funding ISIS with men, money and materials? don't allies know the fighters and supporters who still didn't join the battlefront?

    The fight/support to ISIS seems to be another game between US and its allies for more destruction to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

  3. Its always convenient to blame the US for all the world's problems. Whatever happened to Muslims & Arabs taking responsibility and fixing their sectarian tendencies?


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