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

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

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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