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How Bahrain's Parliament functions

In the below sections, we will take a look at how the Bahraini Parliament works, with particular regard for the functioning of the elected Chamber of Deputies and how it interacts with the appointed Shura Council.

Two houses of Parliament

The full Parliament (National Assembly) consists of the elected Council of Representatives and the appointed Shura Council. Both houses have 40 members and elections are every four years, with Shura Council appointments usually occurring at the same time. We are principally concerned here with the Council of Representatives. In line with common usage, unless otherwise stated, “Parliament” is often used here to refer primarily to the elected Council of Representatives.

Parliament Chairman (Council of Representatives)

In late 2014 Ahmed al-Mulla took over from long-standing Parliament Chairman, Khalifa al-Dhahrani. Al-Mulla has proved a popular choice and many MPs speak highly of him. Al-Mulla is a former judge and was an MP in the previous Parliament, with a strong reputation for being a loyalist, but non-partisan figure.

Al-Mulla has talked in strong terms of the need to ensure that MPs abide by the highest code of conduct. He was critical of MPs in the previous Parliament who failed to rigourously attend parliamentary and committee sessions and has threatened severe measures against MPs who regularly fail to attend sessions without good reason.

Al-Mulla has become a well-known face in the media, every day meeting foreign dignitaries and figures from across the Bahraini political establishment, as well as presiding over parliamentary administrative business.

Deputy Chairmen of Parliament

Ali al-Aradi was the popular choice for Deputy Chairman of the Chamber of Representatives, with Abdulhalim Murad as Second Deputy. Al-Aradi is a highly active figure, participating in a wide range of official meetings alongside his official business. In parliamentary sessions he plays a prominent role, often reminding colleagues of the constitutional implications of issues under debate and ensuring the debate remains constructive.

Parliament Secretariat General

The Parliament’s Secretariat General handles the administrative business of the Parliament. It is presided over by former MP Abdullah al-Dossary

Parliamentary Authority Office

This office (hay’at al-maktab) is presided over by Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla, along with his two deputies and the heads of the permanent committees. This office coordinates the practical business of Parliament. Its work includes deciding what bills and issues will be discussed during upcoming parliamentary sessions; and directing draft bills to the respective committees for review and modification.

Permanent committees

There are five permanent committees in the Chamber of Representatives (and also in the Shura Council). These are responsible for drafting and modifying legislation.

Permanent Committee for Financial & Economic Affairs (Headed by Isa al-Kooheji

Permanent Committee for Foreign, Defence & National Security Affairs (Abdullah Bin-Huwail)

Permanent Committee for Public Utilities and Environment (Jamal Dawoud)

Permanent Committee for Shari’ah and Legal Affairs (Shaikh Majid al-Majid)

Permanent Committee for Services (Abbas al-Madhi)

Other committees

There are currently four regular committees

Committee for Youth and Sports (Ali Bufarsan)

Committee for Supporting the Palestinian People (Mohammed al-Ammadi)

Committee for Human Rights (Khalid al-Shaer)

Committee for Women and Children (Dr. Jamila al-Sammak)

There are also a variety of temporary committees set up to investigate certain issues or discuss major areas of Government legislation, such as the 2015-2018 Government Action Plan Committee and the Committee for responding to the King’s speech.

During this parliamentary session other committees have been set up to probe unregistered foreign workers, improper recitation of the Quran and meat imports. Other investigatory committees are likely to be set up for parliamentary investigations into aspects of the recently-debated annual Financial Audit Bureau Report.

Legislation

The powers and roles of the two houses of Parliament are set out in the 2002 National Action Charter (the Constitution) and were somewhat revised in 2012. The Parliamentary Codes set out in greater detail how the procedural business of Parliament is carried out. These procedures themselves have been modified on several occasions.

Government Action Plan and Annual Budgets

Although Parliament has always had to approve each annual State Budget; the 2012 constitutional amendments give the Parliament (Chamber of Representatives) the powers to approve the Government’s four year plans.

When this occurred for the first time in early 2015 it meant that MPs could exert a lot of influence on the content of the Action Plan, to ensure it was in line with issues prioritized by local constituents.

However, these amendments have given rise to a number of challenges and ambiguities: For example; some MPs have challenged the logic of approving the Action Plan before being given access to the Annual Budget. Initially, this made it very difficult for MPs to understand how aspirations set out in the Action Plan would translate into specific projects. However, most MPs were reassured after lengthy meetings with ministers to better understand the details of the proposals.

The Budget is also likely to be a matter of contention if MPs don’t see promises which were set out in the Action Plan adequately budgeted for. The decision by MPs in early April to limit the Government’s debt ceiling may further complicate these issues as all parties seek to ensure that their priorities are provided for in the Budget against a backdrop of tight financial constraints.

Government legislation

New laws and modifications to existing laws may be drafted by government departments and then submitted first to the Council of Representatives for approval. The bill will be delegated to the relevant parliamentary committees. These can recommend to the Council of Representatives to accept or reject the draft, or accept it with modifications.

The bill will then be debated and voted on by the entire Council of Representatives, which will often accept the recommendations of the specialist committee, but sometimes the vote goes against the recommendations or sometimes the Council sends the bill back to the Committee for further drafting and consultation.

Once the Council of Representatives has voted on the draft, it is passed on to the Shura Council for debate. Complications arise when the two houses of Parliament disagree with each other over proposed amendments or have significantly differing views on the legislation. The result often is that the draft is shunted about between the various committees as compromise drafts are debated and approved and in some cases legislation can get held up indefinitely.

The Government and the Parliamentary Authority Office can agree to mark a piece of legislation as “urgent” which means that it will be prioritized for debate at the committee level and then rushed into the first available open parliamentary session for approval.

Inevitably, there are differing views about what constitutes “urgent” legislation. In April 2015, MPs blocked several bills marked as “urgent”; protesting that much legislation didn’t merit the label and this obstructed other business.

Parliament itself can also decide to initiate the drafting of legislation. In some cases it is encouraged to take on this task by the Government. The drafting is undertaken by the relevant specialist committee. The committees routinely seek advice from experts, legal specialists and government departments on legislation they are drafting or reviewing.

Similar processes apply for occasional amendments to the Constitution (for example, amendments made in 2012). However, the conditions for amending the Constitution are more stringent, requiring a two-thirds majority vote.

Private bills

Elected MPs regularly submit private bills (muqtarah bi-raghbah) – proposals for legislation. These bills are co-sponsored by up to five MPs. These bills tend to be given lower priority and so are fitted in around other business. The Parliamentary Authority Office has the deciding say on how and when such bills will be pursued.

In the private bill, it must be cited how the proposal is in line with the principles of the Constitution. Several proposals are often rejected or sent back for modification because it is considered that they are not in the spirit of the Constitution.

If a private bill secures approval to be pursued, it will be delegated to a relevant committee for discussion and the drafting of a report recommending what action should be taken by the Parliament (approval or rejection). Eventually, the draft will come back to the full session of the Chamber of Representatives and if approved will be passed on to the Shura Council to undergo a similar approval process.

Once approved by both houses of Parliament, the Government can decide whether it wants to pursue these private bills. MPs have recently been tabling proposals for committing the Government to deadlines for implementing these kinds of bills, following complaints that several agreed bills never see the light of day.

Political questions and open debates

A substantial amount of parliamentary time is taken up by ministers answering written questions put to them by MPs in the area of the minister’s specialization. These responses may take the form of an extensive discussion of the issue in question.

MPs have also decided over the past few months to devote parliamentary time to open discussion of key issues. Such discussions have been held on the themes of support for Bahraini sporting achievement and the recruitment of Bahraini teachers.

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