Over the last few days, leading opposition newspaper Al-Wasat has been campaigning heavily against the constituency boundary changes. In the light of the greater amount of information that is now available, we would like to return to this issue once again and demonstrate definitively that the boundary changes are broadly fair and don’t systematically discriminate against the opposition.
The central point Al-Wasat wants to make concerns one single constituency – the 10th Southern district. Including Hawar Islands this single district constitutes around a fifth of Bahrain’s landmass, yet has a low population density. The issue of under-populated areas is a problem for those designing electoral districts all round the world, particularly when the region is strategically significant and requires proper representation.
However, the fact is that we are talking about one single electoral district with half the number of registered voters of any other district and around a quarter of the number of voters of many central districts – so obviously this single district does skew the statistics.
This helps give some context to the sensationalist Al-Wasat headline “558% disparity between the electoral blocs of 7th Muharraq and 10th Southern”.
What Al-Wasat doesn’t emphasize is that the 7th Muharraq district – now the largest constituency in Bahrain – is one of the most diehard loyalist constituencies you are likely to find, where the key battles are likely to be fought between various Sunni Islamist rivals in the 22 November elections.
The point is that there is no systematic correlation between constituency size and political orientation in the new constituencies.
To prove this we will take ten of the constituencies in areas that have most consistently voted for opposition candidates and ten of the constituencies where a majority of voters have always favoured loyalist candidates and will show that they are of comparable average sizes:
Pro-opposition districts: 1st Northern (10,749 registered voters); 2nd Northern (6,970); 4th Northern (9,277); 5th Northern (10,388); 3rd Capital (10,225); 5th Capital (7,782); 6th Capital (10,946); 7th Capital (10,695); 8th Capital (9,372); 9th Capital (9,591); 6th Muharraq (7,762) [Total registered voters: 92,811 ÷10 =9,281]
Loyalist districts: 3rd Southern (7,227); 4th Southern (8,589); 5th Southern (8,788) 1st Capital (7,988); 1st Muharraq (8,071); 4th Muharraq (7,904); 7th Muharraq (13,204); 8th Muharraq (9,065); 8th Northern (8521) 11th Northern (12,341) [Total registered voters: 91,699 ÷10 = 9,170]
We find that the average size of the constituencies is around 9,280 voters in regions favouring the opposition, compared with 9,170 voters in regions sympathetic to loyalists.
Most fair-minded people will recognize that this isn’t a major disparity and they can repeat the sum themselves if they have any doubts.
This is a major improvement from the significant disparities which had arisen in electoral districts prior to 2014 as a result of population change. So we find that the pro-opposition 1st Northern seat – which had been the largest constituency in Bahrain with a demographic many times the size of the average – no longer exists and has been effectively cut in two between the Northern and Capital Governorates and similar changes have occurred to other oversized former constituencies.
Reasonable people may ask why the reforms haven’t gone all the way and produced 40 constituencies all equal in size. There are four obvious responses to this:
First: Bahrain is an archipelago of islands and so a group of varying-sized islands does not divide neatly into equal-sized chunks.
Secondly: Bahrain is divided into hundreds of blocs of housing, so somebody is placed in a particular constituency depending on the bloc they live in. If the constituency border designers had started dividing up these blocs the situation would have become unmanageably confusing for voters and candidates.
Thirdly: The revisions have broadly taken account of the pattern of clusters of habitation in Bahrain. The planners have tried to keep well-defined areas and villages together to help retain a sense of identity for each district.
Finally: The revisions appear to take account of future building projects, to avoid having to make major revisions every time a new block of houses is built. For example, some of the lowest populated constituencies coincide with major building and land reclamation projects, like 1st Capital, 5th Muharraq, 8th and 9th Southern. Even the notoriously underpopulated 10th Southern constituency is undergoing the massive Durrat Al-Bahrain building project and so may not always have the smallest population.
Al-Wasat uses a huge pie chart on its front page to prove that the four governorates aren’t the same size. But what does this matter, when they each have different numbers of constituencies in them? Do they expect the island of Al-Muharraq to magically expand in size until it is equal with the other three governorates?
Al-Wefaq Islamic Society has rejected the changes based on the claim that the changes couldn’t guarantee itself a natural majority. What kind of criteria is this for boycotting the elections?
Al-Wefaq’s problem is that it has rigidly defined itself as a sectarian party. Instead of reaching out to moderate Sunnis and other constituencies frustrated with Government performance and anxious for change; Al-Wefaq has boxed itself in in a manner that will only allow itself to appeal to a particular sect and those of a particular mindset. By following in Al-Wefaq’s coattails, “secular” societies like Waad have also made themselves completely unacceptable to mainstream voters.
The result is that Al-Wefaq have in practice introduced an approach similar to what we find in Lebanon where groups like Hezbollah guarantee themselves a particular segment of the electorate with depressing predictability every elections, no matter how they perform. This sectarian system is wholly foreign to Bahrain and therefore, if these changes to not disproportionately benefit a sectarian society like Al-Wefaq – then this is good news for Bahrain.
Therefore, if Al-Wefaq desire to maximize their share of the electorate, it is counter-productive for them to hold Bahrain to ransom by boycotts and civil disobedience in the hope of forcing further concessions.
Opposition societies can only widen their popularity and electoral chances by reaching out to all Bahrainis, rejecting sectarianism and acting on a platform of national unity. We hope that this lesson will be learnt before more damage is done to our nation’s social fabric.