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Action against corruption: A week in the Bahrain Parliament

12 – 18 Feb 2015

With the Financial Committee readying its response to the Financial Audit Bureau’s report into corruption and mismanagement; new measures against officials under investigation for impropriety indicates a growing readiness among MPs to take tough action against those accused of corruption.

New health fees imposed on expat workers continue to be a contentious issue between the Government and MPs. In a Parliament where 90% of representatives are independents, there are some indicators of political blocs beginning to coalesce.

Unpaid leave for officials under investigation

MPs have agreed that civil servants being investigated on criminal charges are to be forced to go on unpaid leave. Some deputies questioned whether this went against the principle of innocent until proven guilty. However, it was agreed that if found innocent, these officials would be entitled to their back-pay.

The measure was introduced to address the anomaly that an official could previously remain in their post, despite suspicions of impropriety or criminal behaviour.

The session saw a standoff between Majid al-Majid, head of the Legal Committee which had worked on these measures and Ali al-Atish who questioned the manner in which the amendments had been handled and the motivations for introducing these measures.

Meanwhile, member of the parliamentary Financial Committee, Jalal Kadhim, told the media that the Committee was on the verge of finalizing its analysis of the Financial Audit Bureau report, meaning that it could shortly be put to the full Parliament.

Several MPs have stressed their readiness to take any corruption or impropriety allegations very seriously. This could mean summoning ministers and senior officials for questioning about abuses that occurred on their watch and directing cases to the public prosecution.

Pay cuts threatened for non-attending MPs

Head of Parliament Ahmed al-Mulla has condemned MPs who fail to regularly attend parliamentary sessions. This became a major issue during the previous Parliament when it was discovered that some MPs had been stuffing papers into the machine recording attendance, allowing them to falsely claim that they were attending sessions.

Al-Mulla pointed out that with eight MPs abroad on official business, only 22 out of 40 MPs attended the Tuesday session this week. “MPs are here to serve the people and it is their responsibility to show up if they are concerned about the welfare of those who have elected them,” Al-Mulla said, warning that there would be pay deductions for those who failed to attend without valid excuses.

Health fees standoff between MPs and Government

MPs have continued to speak out against the health fees imposed on expat workers in a parliamentary session attended by Health Minister Sadiq al-Shehabi.

MPs, speaking one after the other, said it unfairly penalized Bahraini businesses which would have to bear the burden of these fees. They claimed that the fees made it unprofitable for businesses to take on staff and crowded out investment.

The Minister responded that the measure did not amount to an additional tax on businesses, but was about paying a fee for services provided by the Ministry of Health. Ministers have pointed out the considerable expenses of the previous arrangement in which non-Bahrainis were eligible for free healthcare, particularly in the current context of huge pressures on the budget.

MPs have formally called on the Government to repeal these measures and have questioned their legality, having been unilaterally introduced by the Cabinet. However, there is little indication that the Cabinet will back down. 

With MPs reluctant to drop this issue, this file is likely to be an irritant in Parliament-Cabinet relations for some time to come and is an indicator the State Budget, when it is put before Parliament next month will be highly contentions, as difficult decisions will need to be made about how to cut spending.

Walkout aftermath

Last week’s Parliament session saw a walkout by around 10 Islamist and conservative MPs concerning corruption allegations cited in the media. It was subsequently revealed that the deputy head of the Parliament’s Secretariat General, Mohammed al-Gharib, had been relieved of his post. Because Al-Gharib is a member of the Salafist, Al-Asalah political society, the two Asalah MPs, Abdulhalim Murad and Ali al-Muqla protested this decision.

However, it was later stated that the corruption allegations were unfounded and Al-Gharib had left his post to the mutual satisfaction of both sides.

Following these incidents, several MPs were strongly critical of the deputies who had walked out. MP Abbas al-Madhi said in a statement that these figures had acted “according to narrow and non-nationalistic affiliations”, calling for measures to be taken against “all MPs who exceeded the limits of respect”. He specifically criticized Mohammed al-Ahmed who began shouting at Head of Parliament Ahmed al-Mulla when his microphone was turned off during last week’s session.

However, Mohammed al-Ahmed was unrepentant, blaming Al-Mulla for leaking false allegations to the media and saying that he would soon be providing evidence of “unjust” deals being done behind the scenes to “force changes of the Secretariat General”.

At least two MPs who had left the session during the walkout claimed that they had not been part of the walkout, but only left to remonstrate with their colleagues.

By this week’s parliamentary session it seems that tensions had been diffused and no mention was made of the incidents.

Parliamentary blocs forming?

Earlier this week it was announced that a “National Bahrain” bloc had been formed in the Parliament, consisting of five MPs, Mohammed al-Jowder, Ibrahim al-Hamadi, Ali Bufursan, Abdulrahman Bumajid and Ahmed Qaratah – although Al-Hamadi subsequently denied that he’d taken a decision to join.

The group is primarily made up of conservative (but not necessarily Islamist) Sunnis; ranging from staunchly loyalist and consensual figures, to individuals like Ahmed Qaratah with a track record of going against the status quo. They have prioritized the Financial Audit Bureau report as being the most important issue they want to start working on.

This would indicate that this is a grouping with the aspiration to shake things up and take an activist approach. However, with only around four members, it is not clear whether this small grouping of diverse personalities can have a consolidated impact.

The only other bloc that shows signs of emerging is around the Salafist political society, Al-Asalah, which only has two registered MPs in Parliament. There are a handful of MPs who may be motivated to join such an Asalah bloc, such as Sunni cleric Nabeel al-Balooshi or former Asalah affiliate Jamal Dawoud.

The (pro-Muslim Brotherhood) Al-Minbar representative Mohammed al-Ammadi could possibly join such a bloc. Minbar and Asalah were politically aligned in the past, but competed against each other in the 2014 elections.

However, the walkout during the previous week was a politically divisive event (see above) which left Asalah in the firing line. Such incidents may make MPs more reluctant to formalize their relationship into an Islamist bloc.

There are up to nine MPs within the same “Islamist” orbit as Asalah and who could conceivably constitute a formal or informal Islamist bloc.

 

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