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Bahrain - Politics - 2006 Election

Bahrain held parliamentary and municipal council elections in two rounds on 25 November and 02 December 2006. Voter participation in the first round was 73 percent of all registered voters. In second round runoff races 69 percent of those eligible to vote cast ballots. Although there was a small group of eligible voters who maintained a boycott of the elections, all political societies, including the four that boycotted the 2002 elections, participated in the elections.

Although no international observers participated, nine local civil society groups were permitted access to poll stations to observe voting, including Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society and Bahrain Society for Public Freedoms. Bahrain Transparency Society and Bahrain Human Rights Society joined efforts to form the Election Monitoring Joint Committee (EMJC).

Although by year's end it had not issued its final report, in an initial assessmentEMJC reported that there were no reports of widespread attempts to influence the outcome of the elections. In addition to the country's 40 district polling centers, voters of any district could cast their votes at one of ten general polling stations. Prior to the elections, the general stations had received attention as an area possibly vulnerable to manipulation. Official polling station observers did not report significant problems during the voting process, although there were allegations that general poll center vote counts were manipulated in some cases against opposition candidates in close races.

At district polling stations, results were announced to observers and candidate representatives following the counting of ballots. However, at many general poll centers during the first round this did not happen. Votes from general polling stations were taken to central facilities and folded in with those of other general stations before vote counts were made public. After the first round, EMJC presented this lapse in transparency to the High Commission for Elections, and adjustments were made for the runoff elections. Prior to moving ballot boxes following the vote in the runoff races, election officials announced vote counts to observers.

EMJC reported a series of other violations, the most serious being that candidates did not cease campaign activities 24 hours prior to the polls as required by law. Campaign volunteers continued to pass out fliers and lobby voters in the vicinity of polling stations on election day. In addition observers reported many violations of campaign posters and billboards moved closer to polling stations than allowed by law just prior to the election. Most other violations were minor and procedural.

On August 11 Minister of Social Development Dr. Fatima al-Balushi declared that the administrative and financial procedures of NGOs would come under direct control of a new department in the ministry. The purpose of this regulation was to prevent charitable organizations' financial support of candidates during elections.

On July 30, the government implemented an amendment to the Political Rights Law lowering the voting age from 21 to 20 years of age.

The government drew the unified electoral districts for both the municipal council and the legislative elections to protect Sunni interests by creating several districts with small populations likely to elect a Sunni candidate. In contrast districts where a Shi'a candidate was likely to win were drawn to include large numbers of voters, a formula that diluted the voting strength of the Shi'a community. Observers commented that this gerrymandering generally violated the one-man, one-vote principle common to most democracies. According to voter lists for the elections, divergence in the electoral population per district is significant-- the number of eligible voters per elected representative can vary by as much as a factor of 13.

In July 2005 a Political Societies Law replaced the 1989 law as the governing law for organized political activity. The law gives political societies legal authority to exist and defines guidelines within which they can operate. Political societies were highly critical of provisions in the law that require them to notify the MOJ before contacting political groups abroad. The law also prohibits foreign funding or training, raised the minimum membership age from 18 to 21; and gives the MOJ the authority to reject an application for registration. v The government did not allow the formation of political parties, but 15 political societies, which received some government funding and operated somewhat like political parties, chose candidates for parliamentary and municipal elections, campaigned for political office, developed political platforms, held internal elections, and hosted political gatherings (see section 2.b.). The government began recognizing political societies in 2002 and placed them under the jurisdiction of the 1989 Civil Societies Law. Although the 1989 law prohibits civil society groups from engaging in political matters, the government permitted such activity at its discretion.

Al-Wifaq, the country's largest political society (Shi'a), and three other political societies, boycotted the 2002 parliamentary elections, citing grievances over the constitutional provisions that equalized the powers of the elected COR and the royally-appointed Shura Council. During 2005 all political societies except one, including three of the four boycotting societies, registered under the new Political Societies Law, a required first step toward participation in the November and December legislative elections. The remaining boycotting political society registered in spring of the reporting period. As of the end of the year, 15 political societies were registered with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry did not refuse or defer the application of any political society.

The Ministry of Social Development suspended the opposition Islamic Action Society (IAS) for 45 days after a June 2005 seminar in which members of the IAS allegedly praised 73 persons convicted of a 1980's coup attempt. The ministry accused the IAS of "defaming the constitution, national symbols, and the political leadership; tolerating incitement; and distributing pamphlets not licensed by the Ministry of Information."

Women have the right to vote and run for public office. In the legislative elections, 18 women ran in the legislative and five ran in the municipal elections. One woman, Latifa al-Qa'oud, was unopposed in her district and became the first female member of parliament. None of the other women candidates were elected. Percentages of the voting by gender were not released by the government.

On June 6, King Hamad appointed Mona al-Kawari the first female judge. On June 8, the UN General Assembly elected attorney Shaikha Haya Bint Rashid Al Khalifa as president, the assembly's first Muslim woman president.

In December the king appointed 10 women to the 40-member Shura Council. This represents an increase of four from the previous Shura Council that served from 2002 to this past year. One of these women, Alice Samaan, a Christian, was elected to be the second deputy speaker of the council.

In 2004 the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs reported that women held 9 percent of senior civil service posts. Minister of Health Dr. Nada Haffadh and Minister of Social Development Dr. Fatima al-Belooshi continued to serve in the parliament.

The Shi'a constitute approximately 70 percent of resident citizens, and both Shi'a and Sunni citizens have equal rights before the law. However, the royal family is Sunni, and Sunnis dominate politically and economically.

The king appointed one Christian and one Jewish member to the new Shura Council in December. Eighteen Shura Council members were Shi'a Muslims and 17 were Sunni. Five of the 23 cabinet ministers were Shi'a, including a deputy prime minister.

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