On 22 November 2014 Bahrainis will go to the polls to elect parliamentary candidates. Candidate registration ended on 19 October, leaving candidates one month to win over voters and explain what they stand for.

See this link for the Definitive Guide to the 2014 Bahraini Elections

Five reasons why these are the most exciting Bahraini elections ever

1)    There are twice the number of candidates this time round – around 300 candidates competing in 40 districts. In some districts there are between 10 and 15 rivals; making second-round run-offs a certainty. Ten sitting MPs will not be standing for re-election, which leaves the field wide open for new candidates.

2)    A dramatic shake-op of constituency borders affecting almost every electoral district makes the voting results very difficult to call; with altered political demographics and new combinations of contestants facing each other.

3)    The Al-Wefaq boycott has attracted a lot of new candidates in historically pro-opposition constituencies, defying the boycott and looking to fill the vacuum that Al-Wefaq has left, including around 23 female candidates.

4)    The partially unsuccessful attempts between Sunni groupings to create a fully unified electoral list has allowed for a number of dramatic head-to-head battles between societies like Al-Asalah, Al-Minbar and the NUG (National Unity Gathering).

5)    The fore-mentioned constituency changes have in some cases left multiple standing MPs stranded within the same constituency. Some figures changed their electoral address to avoid a stronger opponent, some dropped out altogether and some – like Hassan Bukhamas and Abdulrahman Bumajid in the 4th Capital district – chose to fight it out.

How many seats are being contested?

There are 40 seats being contested for 40 electoral constituencies in a first-past-the-post system. For this purpose, Bahrain is divided into four governorates: Capital, Northern, Southern and the island of Muharraq. The fifth Central Governorate was recently abolished and incorporated into the other regions.

How often do elections take place?

Elections take place every four years. The 2002 Parliamentary elections were the first under Bahrain’s new constitution. There have been elections in 2006 and 2010; with a major by-election in later 2011 following the walkout of the 18 Al-Wefaq MPs.

Municipal Council elections usually coincide with the parliamentary elections, meaning that voters are electing two sets of candidates.

Why are there two rounds of voting?

If no candidate in a constituency wins more than 50% of the valid votes then the two highest polling candidates go to a second round; with the winner in the second round run-off gaining the parliamentary seat.

Which are the key groupings?

A significant proportion of MPs in Parliament have tended to be independents. The law concerning political associations, drafted in 2005, is the framework for regulating political societies.

There are several political blocs to take account of. In the 2006 and 2010 elections the Shia opposition society Al-Wefaq won around 17-18 seats, making it the largest political society at that time. However, since 2011 Al-Wefaq has chosen to boycott Parliament.

The numerous Sunni/loyalist groupings have likewise tried to unite their voting strategy within the Al-Fateh Coalition (including Al-Minbar al-Islami, the National Unity Gathering and Al-Mithaq). However, after weeks of negotiations, the various political groupings failed to agree on a fully-unified list, meaning that multiple Al-Fateh societies are competing against each other in two constituencies (10th Northern and 1st Southern). At the close of the registration process Al-Fateh announced that it was competing on a unified list in 14 constituencies.

The Salafist society, Al-Asalah remained separate from these negotiations and is to contest against Al-Fateh candidates in three constituencies (7th Muharraq, 10th Northern and 1st Southern), while the Al-Wasat Society froze its membership of Al-Fateh during these negotiations and its secretary-general, Ahmad al-Binali is to contest against Al-Asalah in 3rd Muharraq.

What are the main issues concerning voters?

Housing and employment, as well as provision of public services are big issues that concern voters. Candidates have also prioritized “increasing wages”, costs of living, economic growth, unemployment and fighting corruption in their campaign pledges. Many candidates also speak about the importance of promoting stability and national unity.

Why all the fuss about election boundaries?

Substantial variations in the size of numerous constituencies has been a contentious issue for many years. This September major revisions were made to the constituency borders, affecting 80% of electoral districts and with the result that 90% of these constituencies are now of a comparable size.

In some cases these changes have resulted in multiple sitting MPs competing against each other, and these radical changes make the results of these elections very difficult to predict.

What about the boycott?

Al-Wefaq and a handful of opposition groups have decided to boycott these elections, even after intensive efforts through the Dialogue process to try and attract these groupings back into Parliament.

The electoral boundary changes, which create more evenly-sized districts, caused many opposition figures to argue in favour of inclusion. However, ultimately the hardliners won the argument to boycott.

However, Parliament has functioned adequately since 2011 without these societies, so one could argue that the net losers are those who are boycotting and the constituencies they represent.

Which constituencies are the most hotly contested?

Many of the central areas of Bahrain around Hamad Town and Isa Town and to the south of Manama are worth watching. These areas have a diverse population, which has often favoured liberal and middle-ground politicians. There are several women contesting these seats.

Several areas of the Capital also have very mixed populations, like the 2nd, 5th 9th & 10th districts, which will make for exciting competition.

The Al-Wefaq boycott has paved the way for lesser-known candidates to get voted in with a smaller share of the vote, so the competition can be unpredictable.

Approximately 300 candidates have registered for the parliamentary elections, which is around double the registration rate in previous years, indicating that competition will be tough. Many constituencies have between ten and 16 candidates standing.

Ten sitting MPs will not be standing for re-election, which leaves the field wide open for new candidates.

The high proportion of Bahrainis who turn out to vote – 73% in 2006 – is also testament to the credibility and competitiveness of these elections.

Who can be an MP?

Candidates must be Bahraini nationals, enjoying all civic and political rights and registered in their respective constituencies. The candidate had also to be aged 30 or over and be able to read and write Arabic.

Are women likely to win seats?

There are currently four female MPs (15 across both houses of Parliament) and several women have stood as candidates in each of Bahrain’s elections contests.

There are a couple of dozen female candidates standing for elections across the four governorates, with several figures like Lulwa al-Mutlaq, Zainab Abdulamir, Fawzia Zainal and Sumayya al-Jowder likely to do well.

The Islamic political parties haven’t tended to field female candidates – although the NUG has nominated Jaihan Mohammed in the 1st Southern district – so in general women have stood as independents.

In the past, the Salafi society Al-Asalah has actively opposed female candidacy, while the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Al-Minbar has stated that it does not object in principle to female candidates, but would not field any itself.

When were the last elections and what happened?

The last full elections were in 2010. Sixty-seven percent of Bahrainis participated, with 127 candidates competing for 40 seats, including seven women.

The Sunni parties – Al-Minbar and Al-Asalah performed poorly, gaining only five seats between them, while left-wing and liberal candidates hardly got a look-in. So a high proportion of the vote went to independent figures. Meanwhile Shia opposition society, Al-Wefaq won 18 seats.

However, when Al-Wefaq walked out of Parliament in February 2011 this necessitated a by-election in their 18 constituencies, which brought many new independent faces representing predominantly Shia and opposition communities into the Parliament.

Which constituencies are the most hotly contested?

In the 2010 elections the two major Sunni parties largely lost out to independents. Sunni figures have been very visible and vocal since the 2011 unrest, so will be hoping to convert this into increased votes within the context of the Al-Fateh Coalition which has candidates running in around 15 districts.

The radical constituency border changes left many districts with a very different demographic, particularly in the central areas. Many of these constituencies no longer have a sitting MP within their borders. The result is that the winner of these areas will be very difficult to predict and this unclear situation has attracted long lists of candidates to try their luck. It is likely that a higher proportion than ever of electoral districts will require a second round to decide the winner.

In some cases the border changes have resulted in more than one sitting MP being thrown together in the same electoral district. Many MPs in such a situation have withdrawn from the competition in favour of a stronger candidate, but in a few cases this has produced an exciting head-to-head battle, such as the 4th Capital district where MPs Hassan Eid Bukhamas and Abdulrahman Bumajid are to compete.

There will be a lot of interest in how moderate independent MPs fare vis-à-vis these Islamic parties, how women candidates perform and whether incumbent MPs manage to hold onto their seats in some of these hotly-contested areas.

What can we expect to happen in the Shia-majority constituencies if Al-Wefaq boycotts the vote?

The fact that Al-Wefaq and their supporters are boycotting opens the field up to a range of figures who chose to stand as independents. In the affected constituencies it is often liberal Shia figures who put themselves forward, but the fact that someone can get voted in on a relatively small number of votes in some of these constituencies can make for some surprise results.

Surprisingly, some of the areas where the boycott has received most support also have some of the longest lists of candidates.

Can we expect these elections to be free and fair?

Previous rounds of elections have witnessed very vigorous and enthusiastic participation by citizens. Prior to the boycott participation in elections ran at around 65-75%. There is monitoring of the vote in the various constituencies, both by independent monitors, electoral officials and representatives of the respective political parties.

Independent bodies such as the National Democratic Institute have reported previous rounds of elections as being “well administered” and “smooth” with “no apparent evidence of fraud”

The 2010 elections included over 100 international media representatives and independent organizations like the Bahrain Transparency Society; alongside around 380 Bahraini monitors.

In comparison with 2006, the 2010 elections were somewhat more tense, with a number of militant groups trying to encourage a boycott in certain communities. However, attendance was still relatively high at around 67% around the country.

Given Bahrain’s relatively tiny size, any kind of irregularities are quickly brought to light and there is invariably a high level of public and media debate about the elections process itself and the outcomes, which is very healthy for the democratization process in Bahrain.

Already there have been a number of complaints raised about MPs who started promoting themselves before the deadline and about figures using Mosque sermons to influence the elections. The Elections Committee is investigating these and other issues.

How long has there been an elected Parliament in Bahrain?

Besides the short-lived 1973 Peoples Assembly; the democratization process really got going in Bahrain with King Hamad’s new Constitution, the National Action Charter, which was enshrined into law after a popular referendum in 2001-2002.

Therefore there have been three major rounds of parliamentary elections in Bahrain in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Why does little Bahrain need two houses of Parliament?

In the 1973 National Assembly there was just a single house of Parliament made up of elected figures and appointees. In the late 1990s Bahrain just had an appointed Shura Council. The post-2001 two-house system works well for Bahrain because it combines a system of elected representation with checks and balances to ensure legislation doesn’t penalize those who aren’t adequately represented.

For example, the combined seats of both Shia and Sunni Islamic parties tend to give Islamists a natural majority; so an appointed House which represents other faiths and segments of society is a check against Islamicization of legislation.

What powers do MPs have?

The 2012 constitutional amendments give MPs additional powers for summoning MPs for questioning and voting against new laws proposed by the Government, as well as the prospect of a no confidence vote against Government ministers.

MPs can produce their own proposed legislation. However, this can be challenged by the Shura Council. Recent controversial pieces of legislation have concerned further restricting the sale of alcohol and pork and a proposal to ban non-Bahraini residents from driving.

Don’t some people say this Parliament doesn’t have any real powers?

The opposition frequently claims that elected MPs do not have enough power. However, firstly it is right that there be a balance of powers between the two houses of Parliament, the Cabinet and the judiciary; and secondly, the opposition by continuing its boycott has failed to return to Parliament to test out the significance of the additional powers brought about by the 2012 Constitutional Amendments.

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