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Parliament updates - What's going on in Bahraini politics?

This blog keeps track of significant developments inside Bahrain’s Parliament

 

Jan 30 Parliament session: Legal amendments on advertizing & tourism

The weekly Council of Representatives session agreed a law for increasing violations of tourism legislation to BD 50,000. This included for companies or individuals offering unlicensed tourism services, or for companies which violate the provisions of their licenses and professional standards.

Parliament also agreed on a legal proposal submitted by MPs for preventing the display of advertizing posters on main roads and bridges. The aim of the proposal was to increase road safety. Sponsors of the proposal included Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla, Khaled al-Shaer, Adel al-Asoumi, Jamal Dawoud and Mohammed Milad.

MPs also approved a GCC consolidated agreement for combatting commercial fraud, which represents a significant step forward in enabling a single legal framework for the entire GCC region.

 

MP proposes monthly allowances of BD 100 to all Bahrainis

As an indicator of how MPs often struggle to comprehend the basic constraints of Bahrain’s budgetary situation, MP Mohammed al-Maarifi has submitted a bill demanding that the Government disburses monthly allowances of BD 100 to every Bahraini citizen from birth, until they are in full time employment (or married in the case of women!)

Maarifi claims that this is a means for reforming subsidies and halting unemployment benefit. “This bill will have a significant impact on activating internal markets, lighten the increasing financial burdens on the breadwinners of Bahraini families and serve the welfare of Bahraini citizens;” Maarifi claimed.

It is remarkable that such an idea is even being floated at a time of financial austerity when the Government has been forced to take radical steps to balance its budget; including reducing expenditure of all public sector departments, introducing limited taxes and slashing subsidies on utilities, petrol and basic goods. The fact that Maarifi in the case of women regards marriage as an alternative to employment, shows how this bill could have retrogressive effects in deterring women from balancing work with family life.

Proposals which genuinely seek to improve the welfare of citizens should be applauded. However, several Bahrainis were quick to point out that floating such an unrealistic proposal just a few months before Parliament elections appears to be a cynical attempt to claim that deputies are fighting in the public interest – when in reality, if the Government had passed just a few of dozens of similar proposals, Bahrain would have long since been forced to declare itself bankrupt under a mountain of unsustainable debt.

Citizens for Bahrain discussed Maarifi’s proposal with a few economic experts who pointed out that simply handing out money in this manner tends to be highly inflationary and the resulting price increases could leave working families worse off.  By going to all families, irrespective of personal wealth, the initiative could result in a smaller proportion of the budget being available to support low-income families, the elderly and those with special needs and disabilities.

Such a proposal furthermore goes against efforts to make citizens less dependent on the state (with oil revenues set to steadily decline), and encouraging young graduates to become more independent and entrepreneurially-minded.

Once again at election time we can expect to see dozens of candidates promising to increase public sector wages and shower money upon Bahraini citizens. Such candidates are among the worst possible options: Firstly because they clearly don’t understand the way that Parliament and Government works; and secondly because we should know that they won’t keep these hollow and impossible promises. A businessman like Mohammed al-Maarifi should know better.

Instead, what Bahrainis should be looking for at the polls are candidates with genuine economic and political expertise who can play a constructive role in extracting Bahrain from current budgetary difficulties and put us more firmly on the path towards economic growth and prosperity for all.

 

MPs seek to block petrol price increases – 10 Jan 2018

The 8 January Government decision for a sharp increase in petrol prices with immediate effect triggered an angry response from MPs during their weekly session the following day. Deputies immediately halted the session (cancelling the issues which were timetabled for debate) and huddled together to decide how to respond. Meanwhile, attending ministers and officials were forced to wait.

The result of this discussion was that MPs unanimously voted in favour of a motion demanding a halt to the price increases, which they have sent back to the Government for consideration. It is not yet clear how ministers will respond. However, MPs have pledged to suspend their parliamentary sessions until petrol prices are restored to what they were before.

Numerous MPs have issued statements and comments decrying the decrease in petrol subsidies, with MP Ahmed Qaratah complaining that petrol prices had increased by 100% in just two years. Meanwhile Mohammed al-Ammadi complained that Bahrainis had seen increases in everything… except wages! There was particular anger that once again subsidy reform had been enacted unilaterally without consulting Parliament.

 

December 2017

Parliament session halted due to poor attendance – 19 Dec

This week’s session was brought to a halt after numerous MPs failed to return to the session following time for prayers. Following the noon prayer, only 14 out of 40 MPs returned meaning that Parliament lacked the necessary quorum to continue its business. Considering that this is not the first time such a scenario has occurred, the cancelled session was widely mocked and condemned on social media and in the media.

As Daily Tribune deputy editor Ahdeya Ahmed commented: “Are these people we voted for to raise our issues, defend us and amend and issue legislations that can help us move forward serious about the way they act? Do they believe that this is something they can get away with? Do they even know that the majority have failed to serve the agendas they, three years ago, promised the citizens that voted for them? Do they know that they are on the verge of being replaced by others because they simply failed the people who put their trust in them? Do they know that their performance has been so disappointing?”

 

MPs call for action on National Audit Office report – 6 Dec

Parliamentary blocs are coordinating with a view to setting up committees of investigation into financial violations identified by the annual NAO report. This is according to MP Muhsin al-Bakri from the National Accord bloc who pledged that serious violations would be transferred to the Public Prosecutor. However, Bakri warned that the process for interviewing ministers about issues of malpractice and financial shortcomings. MP Mohammed al-Ahmad also promised that the Financial Committee, which he is a member of would summon ministers and officials from departments cited by the report. However, he also acknowledged past difficulties in getting the requisite number of MPs to support ministerial interrogations.

Referring to shortcomings identified within Parliament’s own General Secretariat, Ahmed stated: “Before we begin reforming others, the Financial Committee must summon officials from the General Secretariat to discuss the violations cited in the report.” Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla has also called for an urgent investigation into issues cited in the report concerning the General Secretariat. The Shura Council Chairman Ali al-Saleh likewise stressed the necessity of action on all issues raised by the report.

Parliament approves US taxation agreement – 5 Dec

A majority of MPs during their weekly session approved a bilateral agreement between Bahrain and the US, related to the United States’ Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), ensuring that foreign governments provide data about assets of American citizens living abroad for tax purposes. However, Government officials were required to respond to a barrage of questions from MPs about implications of the deal, how it would be implemented and who would be affected.

One of the opponents of the bill, MP Ahmed Qaratah asserted that the agreement was a violation of Bahrain’s sovereignty, with Bahrain gaining nothing from signing such an accord. However, Parliament Minister Ghanim al-Buainain and Foreign Ministry officials responded that this bill was an important factor is consolidating relations between Bahrain and the US.

Harsher sentences for funding terrorism – 5 Dec

MPs approved a bill for strengthening punishments against those guilty of funding terrorism, representing sentences of between ten years and life, along with fines of between BD 100,000 – 500,000. The bill received a unanimous vote from deputies.

 

November 2017

 

Further discussions about rainwater – 28 Nov

There was a sharp exchange between the Minister of Works, Isam Khalaf, and MPs during the weekly Parliament session after a succession of deputies criticized the ministry for failing to get to grips with annual problems of flooding and excess rainwater. The Minister however, countered that MPs needed to get their priorities sorted out in how they saw money should be allotted within the budget, because the kind of far-reaching solutions they were demanding would require a huge investment of funds, while the ministry’s entire budget didn’t exceed BD 40m.

 

Government supports full powers for Parliament Chairman – 28 Nov

Following recent discussions about the extent of powers of the Parliament Chairman for controlling which MPs were allowed to speak during sessions, the Government has confirmed its belief that the Chairman ultimately does have this role, based on established parliamentary procedures. This came after a private proposal by MPs challenging that power and arguing that the Chairman should not be able to limit or control interventions when discussing proposals by MPs.

 

Shura Council delays decision on social security increases – 26 Nov

During its weekly session the Shura Council found itself divided over a draft bill for increasing by 3% annual benefits to needy families. Several MPs argued that the increase was a modest one and it was the least that could be done for families facing increasing costs of living. Others like Dalal al-Zayid argued that at a time when the state budget was under huge pressure there needed to be further study regarding what services and expenses were placing the largest burden upon needy families, so that support could be given in a smart way, rather than just throwing money at the problem. Eventually, the bill was sent back to the committee stage for further discussion.

 

Parliament Youth Committee frozen by resignations – 19 Nov

Three out of five members of the House of Representatives’ Youth and Sports Committee all resigned over disagreements about who would chair the body. After the chairmanship role had been passed around between the members during the past three years, there had been agreement between Jalal al-Mahfoudh, Ibrahim al-Hamadi and Ghazi Al Rahmah that the latter should be chairman for the coming year. Nevertheless, Ali Bufursan nominated himself and succeeded in getting Muhsin al-Bakri’s vote while Hamadi had been absent, leading to the drawing of lots and Bufursan winning. The three MPs immediately resigned and the committee has been inactive “until further notice” ever since. It remains unclear whether the Parliament administrative bureau will accept these resignations.

 

MPs approve taxes for fizzy drinks and tobacco – 7 Nov

MPs have approved a bill for introducing selective taxation on certain goods as part of a GCC-wide initiative for increasing revenues – the first formal tax which has been imposed in Bahrain. The current measures just cover tobacco, energy drinks and fizzy drinks.

The proposals proved deeply divisive in Parliament, with the majority of members of the Financial Committee voting a few days ago to issue a recommendation against the bill. However, Finance Committee Chairman, Abdulrahman Bu-Ali, has argued strongly in favour of the proposals, stressing that these are necessary in order for the Government to balance its budget and to prevent Bahrain getting deeper in debt.

Other MPs like Mohammed al-Ammadi argued against the bill, saying that the language was vague and could allow the Government to introduce taxes on a broader range of goods in the future. Ammadi also claimed that with steadily rising oil prices, such measures were becoming unnecessary. The Finance Minister clarified that any modifications would only occur after being submitted to Parliament. Chairman of the Legal Committee Majid al-Majid stated that his committee favoured the measures, having received assurances about their constitutionality.

One of the sharpest opponents of the bill, Jalal al-Mahfoudh warned that this would necessarily increase prices of fast-food meals, arguing that there should be no increases in costs of living for Bahraini citizens. Other MPs were unhappy that this had been rushed through as an “urgent” bill, limiting opportunities for extensive discussion and consultations with the public. Dissatisfaction was also expressed with the information submitted by the Government and lack of transparency about future taxation plans.

Although a 100% tax on tobacco and a 50% tax on fizzy drinks will increase costs, by selectively targeting goods that are damaging to public health; there will arguably be a beneficial effect in encouraging citizens to spend their money in healthier ways.

Tougher measures against sexual assault - 6 Nov

The Shura Council has approved changes in the law for tougher punishments for sexual assault. However, the bill fuelled a lengthy debate because of stipulating assault against women. Several Shura MPs said that this clause was discriminatory and should be widened to include assault against men too. Dalal al-Zayid supported the original language, noting the global emphasis on increasing protections towards women and arguing that the majority of incidents were against women. She noted that a high proportion of women failed to speak out about such incidents “out of fear for their reputation”.

However, her view was contradicted by several male MPs who argued that this was discriminatory. Eventually the matter came to a vote and the majority of MPs supported widening the bill, to not stipulate just women.

Shura Council rejects MPs’ investment proposal – 6 Nov

The Shura Council has rejected a CoR proposal which would force the Government to sell its shares in private companies; limiting the Government to holding a maximum of 30% of any company. Shura councillors argued the measure could reduce Government income and have a damaging effect on the investment climate. The Parliament Minister also warned that such a move could cause an “earthquake” in the financial markets, noting the huge economic role which Government-owned companies play.

Boycotting Municipal Forum - 5 Nov

A number of municipal councillors insisted on boycotting this meeting between MPs and councillors, complaining that recommendations from the previous session in 2015 had been ignored. For example; Ghazi al-Murbati, head of the Muharraq Municipal Finance Committee announced his personal boycott for an event which he said was a waste of time and a “PR exercise”. However, the event appeared to go ahead successfully. There was general consensus on the need for greater coordination between councillors and MPs in addressing local issues.

Dispute between Shura Council and elected MPs over private bills – 3 Nov

The Shura Council accused MPs in the House of Representatives of unconstitutional behaviour in their attempt to alter parliamentary procedure to compel the Government to implement approved private bills within a set period of time. The Shura Council’s Legal Committee warned that such a measure could be counter-productive in making the system of private bills submitted by MPs unwieldy, leading to reasonable proposals not being introduced. They suggested that such measures could furthermore infringe on the constitutionally-enshrined independence of the executive branch of government.

October

MPs approve committee to investigate indecent behaviour in tourism sector – 31 Oct

Islamist parliamentarians Abdulhalim Murad, Jamal Dawoud, Ali al-Muqlah, Osama al-Khaja and Anas Buhindi submitted a proposal for establishing a committee for examining “indecent activities in the tourism sector”. This would be a joint committee, overseen by the Interior Ministry and the tourism sector. They stated that the aim of this proposal was protecting public morals and traditions, as well as greater supervision over tourist areas. The proposal was accepted by MPs during their weekly session

Parliament rejects proposal to ban “economic exploitation” of children – 31 Oct

The House of Representatives this Tuesday rejected a proposal from the Shura Council seeking to increase the protection of young people from “economic exploitation”. The proposal was initially rejected by Parliament’s Women and Children’s Committee, but also the Government has suggested a re-evaluation of the proposal, which it claimed was already covered by existing legislation.

MPs propose expat only health centre 28 Oct

In an effort to reduce pressure on existing health centres, MPs have proposed the establishment of a health centre specifically for expat workers. The Health Ministry has already rejected the proposal, which it says there is no budget for, also noting that all residents were included within the existing system of health services.

Also during the 31 October parliament session, MPs discussed and approved a proposal for subsidising access to private healthcare for the elderly. Those proposing the bill argued that this would also help reduce costs and waiting times within the public healthcare sector.

Rainwater debate – 31 Oct

Eleven MPs have requested an open debate to investigate Government measures for dealing with seasonal rain. This was approved during the 31 Oct parliamentary session. MPs noted the recurring problems of large areas of flooding year after year, without any obvious action being taken.

Liar! – 31 Oct

MP Ali Atish protested the Parliament Chairman removing his comments from the sitting’s record during which he accused a Government official of submitting “deceitful” (kadhib) information. Atish said that his comments had been appropriate in the context. However, the Parliament Minister challenged him, saying that of course the comments were offensive and inappropriate because “only liars tell lies”. The matter was brought to a vote; with 12 MPs supporting the comments and 12 upholding the Chairman’s decision to remove them – necessitating another vote the following week!

Progressive Democratic League to contest 2018 elections – 31 Oct

The PDL (Al-Minbar al-Taqaddumi), led by Khalil Yousuf, has decided that it will participate in 2018 parliamentary elections. The PDL has its roots in left-wing political activity during the 1950s and 60s, however it has tended to struggle in rounds of elections since 2001. In 2011 it was one of the opposition parties boycotting the political process. However in 2014 it broke away from the other opposition groups.

With several of the better-known opposition societies like Waad, Al-Wefaq and Al-Tajammu al-Wahdawi having been shut down; the PDL may benefit from support by left-wing, liberal and pro-opposition voters. However, with few well-known candidates (many of its core membership belongs to an older generation), it may struggle to win seats. The PDL has proposed participating in 2018 as part of a bloc of “nationalist” centre-ground political societies. It remains to be seen whether it will succeed in finding common ground with other groups.

Subcommittees – 24 Oct

MPs have agreed on the composition of the four subcommittees, whose chairpeople are re-elected at the beginning of each parliamentary year. Although the results are no surprise; we have already raised concerns about the Women’s Committee being chaired by Salafist Buhindi:

Subcommittee for Human Rights: Chaired by Majid al-Asfour, with Jamal Dawoud as his deputy. Other members: Abdulrahman Bumjaid, Adil Bin-Hamid, Nasir al-Qaseer.

Subcommittee for Youth & Sport: Chaired by Ibrahim al-Hamadi, with Jalal Kadhim as his deputy. Other members: Ali Bufarsan, Ghazi Al Rahmah, Muhsin al-Bakri.

Subcommittee for Women & Children: Chaired by Anas Buhindi; with members Ali al-Muqlah and Fatimah al-Asfour.

Subcommittee for Palestine: Chaired by Abdulhamid al-Najjar; with members Muhammad al-Ammadi and Muhammad al-Ahmed.

Other Parliament business:

  • Parliament passes proposal to ban foreigners from owning land and property in residential areas except in industrial and tourism zones
  • Parliament agrees to King's directives for not attending any conference in Qatar's presence.
  • Meeting between the government and parliament to discuss selective tax

Citizens for Bahrain comment: Parliament has a year to prove itself ahead of elections – 17 Oct

Following the customary lengthy summer break, many of us were interested to closely follow this week’s parliamentary session; expecting MPs to come back with fresh energy and with a pile of pressing issues to get stuck into.

Instead we were treated to a session with few matters deserving of mention and circular discussion of issues which didn’t seem to go anywhere. For example, a number of MPs such as cleric Majid al-Majid took the time to praise the Government for rejecting a proposal which had been written discussed and agreed on by MPs during the previous year which sought to ban strike action by workers at the aluminium company Alba.

Time was also spent discussing proposals concerning the lack of car parking spaces in Manama, the increasing cost of beach chalets. Deputies also lamented the fact that the Government had repeatedly vetoed most of the private bills which Parliament had submitted, proposing additional spending on youth clubs, community centres and other suggestions. There was also a bizarre discussion led by MP Abdulhamid al-Najjar about what brands of cleaning products were used in mosques and why those leading the call to prayer should play a role in cleaning their own mosque. 

A rather more relevant discussion was had about wrongfully-dismissed employees. MP Jalal al-Kadhim raised the issue of 40 employees who had reportedly been dismissed by a company which had already been failing to pay them for four months. A Ministry of Labour official expressed sympathy but said that this was an issue for the courts. He disputed claims by MPs that poor enforcement of such phenomena was leading to an epidemic of wrongful dismissal incidents.

It was disappointing to see that for such a significant opening session, nearly one quarter of MPs failed to attend (8 out of 40. We hope that the coming months will not see a repeat of past experiences when several weeks running, sessions were cancelled to halted early because the required number of MPs failed to attend.

The vision for a strong and effective Parliament goes right to the heart of King Hamad’s reform and democratization process. Particularly during the year leading up to the late-2018 parliamentary elections, the public needs to see why these institutions matter in their daily lives. 

As well as individual MPs hoping to deserve reelection, it is in all our interests to see maximum public participation in elections in support of the best candidates.

Parliamentary committees – 17 Oct

The beginning of previous parliamentary seasons has always seen furious competition for leadership positions in key committees. This year these competitions appear to have been relatively subdued, with many of the previous committee heads keeping their positions. 

Abdullah Bin-Huwail for the fourth year running remained as chairman of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee, with Khalifa al-Ghanim elected as deputy; Abdulrahman Bu-Ali returned for his third year as chair of the Finance Committee, with Jalal Kadhim as deputy; Abbas al-Madhi remains head of the Services Committee – a position he has held since 2012 in the previous Parliament. Osama al-Khaja is his deputy. Ali al-Asoumi commences his third year as head of Public Utilities, with Muhsin al-Bakri as his deputy. Thus the only new chairman is Majid al-Majid in the Legal Committee, deputized by Anas Buhindi.

As happened in the previous year, the key parliamentary blocs have failed in their efforts to capture significant chairman positions (Bin-Huwail, Madhi, Asoumi and Bu-Ali are all independents); which is likely to make rivalry for the other subcommittee positions (Human Rights, Women and Children, Youth and Sport, Palestine) even more fierce. 

One key change is that Women’s Committee Chairwoman Rua al-Haiki has said that she will be standing down. Although Rua was criticized in the past for not taking progressive positions on women’s issues (including her strong opposition to enhanced implementation of the UN CEDAW women’s rights legislation). Her departure opens the field to her male Islamist colleagues who have come to dominate this committee (leading to the resignation of its only other female membership two years ago).  

Salafist MP Anas Buhindi, from the Asalah political society which rejects women’s participation in politics, has indicated his interest in moving from being the deputy-chairman, to the chairman of the Women’s Committee. Citizens for Bahrain has previously argued that MPs who are not explicitly committed to women’s participation in politics and society should be barred from a committee who’s primary purpose is to be an advocate for women’s issues in Parliament.

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