After several months with few public announcements about the National Dialogue process, it is reassuring to discover that progress has been made which goes a long way to addressing the opposition’s concerns.
There are to be five “core elements” where the next rounds of Dialogue are to be focused:
Electoral reform: “Redefining electoral districts to ensure greater representation and measures to further enhance electoral oversight”.
Legislative authority: “A revised appointment process for members of the Shura Council” and new measures to “protect the legislative cycle from interruption, and the ability for Parliament to question the actions of ministers, including the Prime Minister and his deputies”.
Cabinet formation: “New rights of approval for Parliament on the appointment of the Cabinet, including the right to seek amendments of, or reject, the Government’s annual plan”.
Judicial reform: “The use of international expertise in order to entrench standards in line with international best practices and strengthen the constitutional independence of the judiciary”.
Security sector: “The importance of national security to all Bahrain’s peoples, rejecting violence and committing to the universal application of the rule of law”. (Bahrain News Agency)
Careful observers will note that there is much in these commitments that is very close to the recent opposition statement which called for “clear objectives for a transition to a democratic system in the state-administration”.
The indication is that there is a readiness on behalf of the authorities to go further than ever before on the path of reform and democratization; while moderate sections of the opposition have conceded on some of their more un-implementable demands, like a directly elected Cabinet.
Over recent weeks we have seen parts of the opposition tearing themselves apart over the issue of whether or not to participate in elections. One or two of the smaller societies have already signaled their intention to break away from the grip of Al-Wefaq and stand for election.
Now is the moment of truth; the Crown Prince recently met with key figures from all principle sectors and briefed them about the progress that had been made and what was at stake in the coming phase of Dialogue. The Crown Prince called on all sides to make this work by full participation in the elections process in order to re-energize the deomocratization process and give greater momentum to the Dialogue.
Extremist elements within the opposition have always advocated the position that they wouldn’t return to Parliament “until all our demands are met” – a clearly ridiculous political slogan that takes no account of the other segments of Bahraini society who think very differently.
So now is the time for more moderate sectors of the opposition to make themselves heard and prove that they believe in Dialogue, consensus and national unity. The nature of mature democracy is that no one gets everything they want and everybody wins when there is willingness to compromise and work together.
It is commendable that the Bahraini authorities at the behest of the King and Crown Prince have been willing to go so far to meet the opposition half way; we now expect some maturity and flexibility from the opposition.
Over the last few months a very vocal and sometimes rather militant segment of Scottish civil society gave the world the impression that the Scottish public were unifying behind the call for independence. The recent referendum proved that in actual fact, a silent majority in most parts of Scotland actually wanted Scotland to remain part of Britain.
There is a comparable situation in Bahrain; a loud and highly visible segment of society have sought to present themselves as “the people of Bahrain” with demands that “could not be ignored”. The parliamentary elections will indeed show that while the opposition represent a single constituency in Bahrain, there are many other political constituencies who think very differently and have different aspirations. That is why a Dialogue process based on consensus is the only way forward.
The opposition’s hesitation about participation in elections and their uncertainty about committing to the Dialogue process indicates that there are many hardliners who pay lip service to democracy, but actually fear that the democratic process won’t serve their interests and would thus prefer to further their cause through militant tactics.
The Bahraini leadership have put their cards on the table, now we can only wait and see whether it is to be the militants or the moderates who win the debate within the opposition camp.