In his latest blogspot Justin Gengler – in keeping with his pro-opposition stance – argued why the recent election reforms were bad for everyone, under the headline: “Bahrain’s New Electoral Districts: No Help for the Opposition; Bad for Troublesome Sunnis”

We will argue below that there are numerous reasons why Gengler is wrong on several counts; although we appreciate him acknowledging Citizens for Bahrain as a source and praising our previous article on the subject as “informative”

Firstly; statistics on voter registration show that the authorities have succeeded in equalizing constituency size to a large degree: Most constituencies now have between 8,000 and 11,000 voters, with only four constituencies exceeding this, the largest with 13,204 being a predominantly Sunni seat in Al-Muharraq. The vast 10th Southern district has half the voter size of any other constituency, but this is an anomaly dictated by geography.

Gengler rejects the changes based on Ali Salman’s statements that the changes wouldn’t allow Al-Wefaq to win a parliamentary majority. Is it legitimate to boycott elections because you can’t guarantee that you are going to win?

However, Gengler’s analysis implicitly refutes Salman’s allegations by showing how the changes actually make things more difficult for Sunni Islamist candidates. He begrudgingly acknowledges that several loyalist constituencies have been significantly expanded resulting in many pro-government figures being thrown in together and being forced to compete against each other.

Then there is the allegation that the Central Governorate has been abolished with the sole intention of denying the political embarrassment Osama Al-Tamimi a seat – despite the fact that Tamimi isn’t expected to be standing for election.

Gengler is right to be concerned that the abolition of the Central Governorate may have an impact on one of the most fertile regions for liberal and middle ground candidates. However these areas of Bahrain still exist and the lining up of independent candidates and progressive groupings like Mithaq and Al-Watan to compete in some of these reconstituted areas around Isa Town, like 7th and 10th Capital and 1st, 2nd and 6th Southern proves that there is still plenty of room for more conciliatory voices to come through.

At times Gengler seems to be buying into Al-Wefaq’s desire for constituencies to be divided along sectarian lines, elsewhere he seems to take an opposite view. We would say that any measures that entrench sectarian divisions can only be a bad thing. Is it wrong that we find Sunnis and Shia in the same constituency? No – that is the nature of Bahrain’s society.

Few will be disappointed that these constituency changes disfavor hardliners on either side – although we wouldn’t buy into his view that this is part of a US plot. As Gengler himself acknowledges, these elections are likely to be good news for a diverse range of independent candidates, including moderate Shia in the seats that Al-Wefaq are expected to boycott.

Our view is that it would be bad for Bahrain for a single grouping to dominate Parliament and for a single political orientation to have a natural and permanent majority. Ali Salman can’t guarantee an entrenched majority for Al-Wefaq? That can only be a good thing. We don’t want Bahrain to be another Lebanon, where the political cake is divided along permanent sectarian lines.

Justin Gengler was clearly determined from the outset to write the constituency boundary changes off as cosmetic and meaningless. The reality proves otherwise. Almost no constituency remains untouched in these radical changes and the authorities have indeed achieved their goal of creating constituencies approximately equal in population size. We admit to being surprised at how far the Government has gone here to address what has always been one of the opposition’s primary grievances.

We would say to both Justin Gengler and the opposition: “Give these changes a chance”. It is very easy to pour cold water over reforms and say they don’t mean anything. However, if these reforms are not put to the democratic test we’ll never know. It is now rightly being said that the appropriate place for the National Dialogue to continue is within a reformed and empowered elected Parliament. The opposition has achieved many of its demands, but it is the nature of democratic politics that you don’t get everything you want.

If the opposition is serious about peaceful change and democratic reform it should continue these efforts from within Parliament after having proved whether or not it still enjoys the popular support that it claims.

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