Bahrain - Political Parties
Following the death of Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa in 1999, Emir (now King) Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa embarked on a program of reform and reconciliation with Bahrain's Shia majority. Restoring the parliament suspended since 1975 was a major element of that program. Originally a unicameral body, King Hamad gained approval in a national referendum in 2000 for a bicameral parliament in which he appoints the forty members of the upper house (Shura Council) while the forty members of the lower house (Council of Representatives) are elected by popular vote. Shia parties boycotted the first election in 2002 and remained outside the legal political system until the mainstream Wifaq party decided in 2005 that it would enter the fray for the 2006 election cycle.
The Wifaq party remains the most popular party among the majority Shi'a underclass and advocates non-violent political activism on behalf of the Shi'a community. Two Islamist parties dominate the Sunni side of the political scene. Secular liberals and leftists did poorly in the 2006 elections and have demonstrated little recent evidence of street appeal, but continue to maintain high media profiles.
The 2002 constitution revived the 40-member, elected Majlis Al Nawab (Council of Representatives) after a 27 year hiatus. Although political parties remain, strictly speaking, illegal, the 2005 Political Societies Act allows for the formation of registered "political societies," which function for all intents and purposes as political parties. The law provides for Government financial support to registered societies, but forbids the societies from accepting foreign funding. As of 2008 the four societies with members in the elected lower house of parliament were Wifaq (17 seats), Asala (8), Minbar Al Islami (7), and Mustaqbal (4).
In October 2008, some attempted to press criminal charges against Wifaq MPs Jasim Husain and Jawad Fairouz for "spreading false information" about Bahrain while overseas. Husain, who gave a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, welcomed the criticism as it raised international awareness of Shia issues. The attacks on Fairouz centered on negative comments he made about Bahrain while leading a parliamentary delegation to Geneva; Fairouz maintains that he was not speaking in his official capacity at the time. Neither was actually charged. Wifaq struck back in March 2009 when a parliamentary committee it controls voted to lift independent Salafi rabble rouser Jassim Saeedi's immunity so that the Ministry of Justice could charge him with inciting sectarianism for allegedly labelling Shia "worse than Zionists." The Sunni blocs retaliated by threatening to lift Wifaq MP Jasim Husain's immunity and prosecute him for his actions the previous October. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and the blocs agreed that both Saeedi and Husain could retain their immunity.
Parliamentary and municipal elections were held again in 2010. The elections were the third since the introduction of constitutional reform by His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in 2001, following a national referendum approved with a 98.4% majority. Bahraini voters went to the polls on October 23, 2010. A total of 31 of the 40 seats were decided in the first round of voting on Saturday 23 October, with a turnout of 67.7 %. In the remaining nine seats, no candidate secured an outright majority of the vote leading to a run off between the top two candidates on Saturday 30 October. The Higher Committee to oversee the integrity of elections in the Kingdom of Bahrain announced 01 November 2010 the results of the Parliamentary elections following the second round of voting in nine constituencies. Pro-government candidates won all nine seats in a runoff election. A total of 17 members were denominated as Independent, replacing 4 Islamic Menbar members and 4 Asalah members. A total of 18 members were membes of Al Wefaq, one of whom replaced an Independent, the rest either being re-elected or replacing other Al Wefaq members. Al Asalah gained only 3 seats [down from 8], while Islamic Menbar gained only 2 seats [down from 7], and Mustaqbal held no seats [down from 4 in the previous election].
REGISTERED SOCIETIES WITH SEATS IN PARLIAMENT
Al Wifaq National Islamic Society
Wifaq is the leading Shi'a political society. It is also the largest political party in Bahrain, both in terms of its membership and its strength at the polls. Wifaq holds a plurality in the elected lower house of parliament, but coalitions of smaller, pro-government Sunni parties usually outvote Wifaq. Most Wifaq leaders were exiled following the unrest of the 1990's, and many continued oppositionist activities from London. With the amnesty of 2001, they returned to Bahrain and founded Wifaq. Wifaq led the 2002 opposition boycott of parliamentary elections. When it decided to run candidates in the 2006 elections, the party split; those who favored a continued boycott left and formed the Haq Movement. After boycotting the 2002 parliamentary elections, Wifaq won 17 seats in the 2006 elections. According to Wifaq, the population of the largest district, which it represents, differs from that of the smallest, represented by a pro-government Sunni independent, by a factor of 13, yet each district only has one representative.Sheikh Ali Salman, a mid-level Shi'a cleric, officially leads the party. Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain's most popular Shi'a cleric, claims to eschew politics but privately supports Wifaq and probably exerts considerable influence over it.
Al Asala Political Society
Asala is exclusively Sunni and is closely associated with Salafist ideology. Al Tarbiya Al Islamiya (Islamic Education Charity Society) funds the party. Asala participated in the 2006 elections and won five seats in parliament; in addition, three Sunni independents generally voted with Asala. Al Asalah gained only 3 seats in the 2010 elections. Asala often aligned with Minbar Al Islami to outvote Wifaq. Asala's supporters are mostly from Sunni enclaves like Muharraq island. Asala says its goals are to increase the standard of living for Bahrainis; strengthen political, social and economic stability; and enhance financial and administrative oversight of the government and industry. Asala does not support women's empowerment. Party chair Ghanim Albuanain is First Deputy Chairman in Parliament. Albuanain strikes emboffs as rational and open-minded, though many of his followers are not. Asala usually backs the government in parliament. Most Bahrainis believe the Royal Court provides extra financial support to both Asala and Minbar as a counter to Wifaq.
Al Minbar Al Islami (Minbar)
Minbar is Bahrain's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and had seven seats in parliament after the 2006 elections, but only two seats after the 2010 elections. It often cooperates with the Salafi political bloc Asala, especially on issues involving religious affairs and morals. Minbar seeks a personal status law that conforms to Sharia and is acceptable to both sects. Minbar's former leader, Dr. Salah Ali Abdul Rahman, is parliament's Second Deputy Chairman. Dr. Abdullatif Al Shaikh is the current Minbar leader. Most of Minbar's leaders are related to one another, and are wealthy academics. Minbar does not allow its female members to stand for election to parliament. Minbar is pro-government, and it is widely rumored that the Royal Court and the Islamic banking sector bankroll the party. The 2006 "Bandar" report accused several prominent Minbar members of engaging in a complex bribery conspiracy to influence the outcome of parliamentary elections in favor of Sunni candidates.
REGISTERED SOCIETIES WITHOUT PARLIAMENTARY SEATS
Four independent members of parliament formed the Mustaqbal bloc after they were elected in 2006. The bloc bills itself as the only secular grouping in parliament, though all four members were Sunni. It voted reliably for the government and its leader, Adel Al Asoomi, is close to the Prime Minister.
Wa'ad National Democratic Action Society
Wa'ad is a socialist party formed by returning exiles in 2002. It failed to win any seats in the 2006 parliamentary elections despite support from Wifaq, and has demonstrated no recent indications that it has recovered politically. However, several of its members have good access to local and international media and are able to maintain a high media profile. Ebrahim Sharif took over the society when the former chairman, Rahman Al Nuaimi, a Sunni liberal who was exiled in 1970, fell ill in 2006. Wa'ad says it desires a peaceful rotation of power in a secular, liberal state, rather than an Islamist one. Abdulla Al Derazi resigned his seat on Wa'ad's general secretariat when he ran for Secretary General of the Bahrain Human Rights Society. Wa'ad consists primarily of middle class professionals, male and female, from both sects. Wa'ad joined the opposition boycott of the 2002 elections. The party questions the legitimacy of the 2002 constitution, and supports a new family law. Sharif led a Wa'ad delegation to Lebanon in late July 2008, where he met and publicly praised recently released Hizballah fighter Samir Al Qantar.
Al Minbar Progressive Democratic Society (APDS)
Established in 2001, APDS represents Bahrain's former communists. Most of its approximately 100 members were exiled during the late Sheikh Isa's reign. Many APDS members used their time in exile to gain experience through work with other Arab political parties. When they returned and founded APDS, the society benefited from their strong organizational skills. Dr. Hasan Madau, a Shi'a columnist for the daily Al-Ayam, chairs the society. Men and women from both sects are active APDS members. APDS had 3 seats in the 2002 parliament, but lost them to Wifaq in 2006. APDS controlled the General Federation of Trade Unions until Wifaq won control of the federation in February 2008.
Al Meethaq (National Action Charter Society)
Wealthy businessmen from well-known families of both sects founded Meethaq in 2002. Meethaq is a pro-government party formerly backed by the Royal Court that now wields little influence. Abdulrahman Jamsheer, a prominent Sunni businessman close to the Royal Court, chaired the society until Mohammed Al Buanain, from a respected Muharraq family, defeated him in the society's 2006 internal elections. After Meethaq members proved themselves inactive with little street influence, the Royal Court reportedly shifted its support to Sunni Islamists with more street appeal. In the 2006 parliamentary polls Meethaq lost its five seats to Wifaq and Minbar.
Amal Islamic Action Society (Amal)
Amal is the non-violent heir to the defunct Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which launched a failed uprising in 1981 inspired by Iran's Islamic revolution. Amal members are often referred to here as "Shirazis" for their alleged ties to Ayatollah Muhammad Al-Shirazi, who died in 2001. A number of Amal's current supporters did prison time, while Mohammed Ali Al Mahfouth, Amal's founder, spent much of the nineties in Damascus calling for the overthrow of the Al Khalifas (ref M). He and his followers were pardoned in the 2001 general amnesty. Amal joined Wifaq's boycott of the 2002 parliamentary elections. Al Mahfouth founded Amal in 2002, but refused to register the society until 2005. Amal has no seats in parliament, and continues to lose influence in the Shi'a community to Wifaq. The Ministry of Justice and Islamic affairs added to Amal's troubles when it determined that Amal violated a law that bars the use of religious buildings for political purposes.
Al Watani (National Democratic Gathering Society)
A few Wa'ad members, led by Sunni Abdulla Hashim, split to form Watani in 2002. After Hashim failed to win a seat in the 2002 parliamentary elections, he began aligning the society with Salafis, even though Watani members hailed from both sects. This angered Watani members, who elected a new board and chairman, Fadhel Abbas, in March 2007. Hashim, an attorney, sued the party alleging that they had violated their bylaws, but lost the case. Since Abbas' election, Watani has begun to reestablish relationships with other societies, including Wa'ad.
Adala National Justice Movement
Abdulla Hashim founded Adala as an umbrella organization for extreme Sunni elements after Watani kicked him out in 2006. Adala registered as a political society with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs on October 22, 2007. Adala has a more nationalist identity than Asala and Minbar. The society initially focused its criticism on the U.K. and Iran, but now devotes all its energy to exposing the horrors of "U.S. imperialism." Hashim has a real talent for attracting local and international media coverage for his stunts, such as an April 26 demonstration near the U.S. Navy base here that featured the beheading a mannequin dressed to represent a U.S. Marine. Despite their media profile, however, Adala has never produced more than 80 people at one of its demonstrations. Both Hashim and deputy Muhi aldin Khan stood for parliament in Muharraq in 2006 and lost to Al Minbar Al Islami. Adala is Bahrain's most outspoken supporter of former Guantanamo detainees, and is usually the first to spring to the defense of Bahrainis arrested for alleged links to Al-Qaeda.
UNREGISTERED SOCIETIES WITHOUT PARLIAMENTARY SEATS
Hasan Mushaima, a founding, hard-line member of Wifaq, left to found Haq in November 2005. From the start, Haq has defied the requirements for registration of political societies. Haq opposes the 2002 constitution on the grounds that it rescinded liberties granted by the 1973 constitution, that the King drafted it unilaterally, and that it gave constitutional legitimacy and legislative authority to the appointed upper house of parliament. Haq accuses King Hamad of not fulfilling his promises to bring democratic reforms to Bahrain. Haq's top public goal is a new constitution for Bahrain drafted by elected delegates. Since Haq competes with Wifaq for the same Shi'a supporters, Haq gains support whenever Wifaq is perceived as unsuccessful in parliament. When Wifaq is successful, Haq loses popularity.
The public perceive Haq as inspiring many of the small gangs of Shi'a youth who throw stones and Molotov cocktails at police almost every weekend. Haq has submitted petitions to the U.N., the USG, and the Government of Bahrain calling for the Prime Minister's resignation and condemning the Government's human rights record. Government of Bahrain officials often assert that the Iranian regime controls Mushaima and other Haq supporters, however has yet to provide convincing evidence.
The new Shia opposition grouping Wafa' ("loyalty") is competing with an older radical group for the leadership of the minority of Bahraini Shia who oppose participation in parliament. It poses little threat for the foreseeable future to Wifaq, the mainstream Shia opposition party. During the first few months of 2009, the temporary detention of Haq's leaders left a leadership vacuum among Bahrain's Shia rejectionists. Abdulwahab Hussain, a once-prominent Shia activist who had kept to himself for over eight years (see para 13), re-emerged as the center of the "Wafa'" ("loyalty") movement.
Hassan Musheima, Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, and Abduljalil Singeis [aka Singace] exercise loose control over Al-Haq cadres, and Haq activists closer to street level provide direct guidance and encouragement for young Shi'a to launch violent clashes. Musheima is a Shi'a cleric who founded the Al-Haq Movement in 2005 after parting ways with the leadership of Al-Wifaq over its decision to participate in parliamentary elections. Al-Khawaja is the president of the dissolved Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Bahraini authorities have long accused him of links to extremists. Singeis is an academic and co-founder of Al-Haq who many consider to be the group's most vocal advocate of confrontation with the government. Abduljalil Al Singace, Haq's public affairs and media specialist, has contacts with U.S.-based and international NGOs and media outlets.