Bahrain Elections 2018
by Antonino Occhiuto
Bahrain’s Diversity in its Electoral Districts
BY ANTONINO OCCHIUTO - Bahrain is the smallest state in the Arab Gulf and yet, the Kingdom is also extraordinarily diverse archipelago. This is apparent when looking closer at the features of the upcoming parliamentary elections. For instance, the features of its 4 Governorates, designed for electoral purposes, resemble several characteristics, such as religious and socio-political diversity, also present in larger neighbouring countries. As such by comparing and contrasting trends across Bahrain, it is also possible to get an understanding of the political balance in the wider region.
Seven out of eight electoral districts in Muharraq are traditionally composed by mainly Sunni municipalities. Muharraq is experiencing the decline in support for established political groups. In the 2014 elections this constituency has been a fierce battleground for leading Sunni societies like Minbar and Asalah. Although key candidates from the previous parliament are formally standing as independents, first-time representative from the two aforementioned Sunni societies are expected to outperform both other groups and their former members who are running independently. Turnout during the 2014 elections reached 85% among eligible voters and a similar turnout is expected in 2018. Media surveys of voters have found voter priorities in this constituency to include housing, living standards, education and improving public infrastructure. Whereas the countryside areas tend to be Minbar or Asalah strongholds, urban areas of Muharraq island are expected to favour an independent loyalist candidate. Lack of suitable jobs for young graduates and lack of activities for younger people is likely to drive an Islamist surge in Muharraq’s suburban areas. Al-Minbar, a society which in the past was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, is expected to increase its popularity among young voters in deprived areas.
The Capital Governorate is certainly the area in which the sectarian divide has had historically a less relevant impact on electoral results. For instance, the second constituency, characterised by an estimated 80% Shiite population, witnessed in 2014 the victory of Ibtisam Hijres, a female Sunni MP. Her election signalled hope of overcoming sectarian and gender divisions. Many of the urban Shia from the Ajam community residing in Manama have shown a tendency to send apart from Al-Wefaq and the mainstream opposition. Many established Ajam families are staunchly loyalist and ignored al-Wefaq’s election boycott in the past. Conversely, both the third and fourth constituencies, which cover most of the city’s suburban and residential areas, are set to be heavily impacted by Al-Wefaq’s decision not to run in 2018. These are traditionally Al-Wefaq’s strongholds. Many of this society’s candidates have decided not to run, either to follow he party line or because they received multiple intimidations. As such there is a strong risk that this part of the city would be left without proper representation. On the other hand, the rise of independent moderate Shia candidates is expected throughout the governorate.
The Northern Governorate includes areas which have been the epicentre of the post-2011 unrest. So, unsurprisingly, in 2014 the boycott was very strong here and voter turnout was only around 8%. For instance, the Governorate includes the Diraz constituency, home of Ayatollah Isa Qassim, spiritual leader of the disbanded Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, who in 2014 was leading the call for a boycott of the parliamentary elections. In 2014 candidates themselves came reportedly under pressure: Mahmoud Al-Jamri withdrew his candidacy and Hussain Al-Hamar’s decided not to run after his car was set alight by militants. The third constituency marks an exception within the governorate. It encompasses many of the Sunni localities along the north of Bahrain’s west coast, like Budaya, Hamala and Jasra which have been, throughout history, very supportive of the Al-Khalifa ruling family. In 2014 turnout reached 65% in this area. In the past, local elites tended to perceive the elections in this precinct mostly as a contest to show which tribe was more influential and hence it would very relevant to analyse the results of this year’s run.
This Governorate, despite its low population density, is by far Bahrain’s largest and most diverse one with significant distinctions between North and South. Northern constituencies are the most likely to require a second round following what is expected to be a three-way contest between three prominent Sunni political societies: Al-Asalah, Al-Minbar and the National Unity Gathering. For example, in 2014 the Salafists of Al-Asalah won the first constituency following the second round and only by a narrow margin. Most electoral constituencies in the central and southern part of the Southern Governorate are characterised of having a mixed population between Sunnis and Shiites. Overall turnout in the Southern government is the second highest, after Muharraq only, and most constituencies will go to a second round in which the candidate who has alienated the least amount of voters is likely to have the upper-hand. The tenth constituency, comprising the southern edge of the main island and the Hawar islands, needs a special mention. This is the constituency with by far the smallest number of voters in Bahrain and in which interest in the election process is rapidly declining. Compared to other Southern constituencies where participation of over 80% has been the norm in 2014, in this constituency’s turnout was 45% and is expected to further decline.
Despite their unique characteristics, the examination of Bahrain’s electoral constituencies shows that there is a common trend. Bahrainis are increasingly less attracted by the traditional establishment represented by both loyalist candidates and opposition parties. In 2018 both independent candidates and Islamists are expected to increase their share of the vote. Lack of political participation, especially in the Northern Governorate and in the Hawar islands, should be monitored and addressed to avoid inadequate representation and further marginalisation. The Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) believes that independently from their result, elections can provide very useful insights regarding voters priorities and the direction the country is taking. The secrecy of the choice and the ballot box represent the ultimate mean available to citizens to express expectations and grievances.
The Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) would like to send special thanks to 'Citizens for Bahrain' for collecting and sharing specific data regarding all electoral districts of Bahrain, thus enabling EGIC to publish this article in a short time period.
23 November 2018