MPs’ performance shows Parliament better without Al-Wefaq
There are many unique factors about Bahrain’s 2014 Parliament: Seventy-five percent of MPs are brand new to the Parliament, with 30 out of 40 former MPs not regaining their seats at the last elections. Ninety percent of parliamentarians (36 out of 40) are independents with no formal political affiliations after political societies performed disastrously at the polls.
This is the first Parliament to benefit from a host of new powers and we have seen MPs using these enthusiastically over recent weeks, forcing substantial modifications to the 2015-2018 Government Action Plan and pledging to take decisive action against instances of corruption cited in the latest Financial Audit Bureau report. The average age of MPs is now substantially lower, with many new deputies entering Parliament on a “pro-youth” platform. We also see a reassuring number of experienced technocratic figures and experts in a range of fields.
However, one of the most refreshing changes to this Parliament becomes obvious when we look at constituencies where Al-Wefaq Islamic Society has traditionally been strong, particularly in constituencies along the north coast and in central Manama.
The decision of this sectarian Shia political society to withdraw its 18 MPs from Parliament in 2011 and to boycott the elections in 2014 paved the way for a range of new faces in these localities.
When we look across the whole Parliament; those who are advocating most effectively for reforms; who have been speaking out most articulately for local interests; and who have been most successful in articulating a progressive vison for Bahrain; have often tended to come from these areas.
Ali al-Aradi (5th Northern), as the deputy head of Parliament, is perhaps the most visible face of this progressive shift in the 2014 Parliament. Before entering Parliament Al-Aradi was a consultant in the Bahrain Chamber for Conflict Resolution, with a background in law and human rights. Ali al-Aradi headed the parliamentary committee which negotiated with Government ministers about amendments to the 2015-18 Action Plan and he has been ambitious in his vision for an empowered Parliament which fulfils its duties of oversight and representing the aspirations of constituents.
The three women in the 2014 Parliament are all young and socially-progressive Shia. They are also new entrants to Parliament from these same traditionally pro-Wefaq localities. Jamila al-Sammak (12th Northern) heads the Committee for Women and Families, and as a result has been active in pushing through legislation protecting women and families from domestic violence.
Fatima al-Asfour (1st Northern) has also spoken out about Parliament’s duty to promote women in society, saying: “We must perform our duty as the legislative body to cooperate with the executive to enhance the role of women and grant them their full rights”.
Rua al-Haiki (6th Northern) enters Parliament with very impressive credentials as a business consultant with a strong record of running programmes for upskilling unemployed Bahrainis. She has also been articulate and active in raising a range of issues from the economy to living standards.
We should also refer here to Ghazi Al Rahmah (4th Northern), Nasir Al Qaseer (5th Capital) and Jalal Kadhim (2nd Northern), all young Shia political activists who won their seats by articulating the grievances of young Bahrainis. Kadhim already has an impressive record of raising a whole range of issues in support of local people.
Just over the last couple of weeks these MPs have been speaking out calling for new local port facilities, greater Bahraini representation in the public sector, traffic reforms and improved local facilities.
Businessman Adel Hamid replaced the controversial MP Ali Shamtout in the 3rd Capital district and he already behaves like a confident and experienced parliamentary performer who is committed to changing the way Parliament does its business.
Two Shia clerics, Majid al-Asfour (8th Capital) and Majid al-Majid (7th Northern), made it into Parliament in 2014. At a time when the Sunni Islamist societies have been vocal on Islamic issues, both these figures have entirely shunned ideological issues and focused on pragmatic subjects that can make a tangible difference to their constituents, such as public infrastructure and employment.
As head of the Legal Committee, Majid al-Majid has quickly become one of the most significant figures in Parliament. He appears to work effectively with his colleagues from across the social spectrum.
Ali al-Atish (6th Capital) is one of a minority of existing MPs who regained their seat in the 2014 elections. He is therefore something of an elder statesman in the new Parliament, and has been able to capitalize on his parliamentary expertise and strong record of speaking out on controversial and difficult issues.
Ahmed Qaratah in the neighbouring 2nd Capital district is a Sunni MP who survived from the previous parliament in a constituency that has tended to be sympathetic to the opposition. Like Al-Atish, Qarratah seems to have won the vote based on his record as an outspoken figure to acts on his political beliefs and speaks out on issues like corruption and mismanagement. Qarratah’s economic expertise makes him a respected voice when he speaks out about the dangers of the growing national debt.
In total, there are 13 Shia MPs in the 2014 Parliament; most of whom hail from constituencies where Al-Wefaq has performed strongly in the past.
The aim here is not to single out the achievements of representatives from a particular sect or community, but show the happy accident that the opposition’s boycott had resulted in.
As a result of Al-Wefaq’s boycott, Islamists of either sect are a small minority which cannot impose its will. During Al-Wefaq’s period in Parliament from 2006-2011, this political society led by clerics, was able to form tactical alliances with Sunni Islamists to create a natural majority for socially regressive legislation which restricted freedoms and limited the cultural space in Bahrain. One of Al-Wefaq’s most notorious actions was blocking legislation for a Family Law which protected the rights of women from the Shia community.
Therefore, the voluntary withdrawal from Parliament of this major Islamist force has created an important space for new figures with a progressive agenda to enter politics.
We hope that the lesson of this Parliament will be that Bahrainis benefit when they vote for candidates who promise improvements to people’s lives; and not ideology and religious agendas.
This analysis is largely based on the findings of the Citizens for Bahrain investigation “What have parliamentarians done for you?”