A “Know Your Deputy” study has been published by a Bahraini human rights advocacy group (huquqiun mustaqilun) showing how the elections promises of MPs in the current Parliament corresponded with aspirations of voters and the 2015-2018 Government Action Plan.

The project concluded that only seven (out of 40) of the candidates who were successfully elected in the November 2014 parliamentary elections had actually produced a detailed and realistic policy platform. While elections platforms issued by 21 candidates were just “general slogans lacking objectives”.

The report concluded that the 2015-2018 Government Action Plan was more closely in line with citizens’ aspirations than the elections proposals of successfully-elected MPs. The report went on to argue that “the success of MPs is not measured by the extent of their powers, but rather by their projects for citizens”.

The report stressed the importance of civil society groups to observe and analyze Parliament’s performance for increasing transparency, accountability and effective governance. The improved performance of the media in covering and analyzing this latest round of elections was praised.

In the context of these conclusions, Citizens for Bahrain sets out below some of the findings from its own research conducted over the 2014 elections period, in the light of subsequent performance by parliamentarians.

Political platforms

Only a few successful candidates in the 2014 parliamentary elections were observed to set out comprehensive political platforms, producing systematic and realistic views and proposals for all areas of policy.

The successful candidates with the most sophisticated political programmes we observed were:

Rua al-Haiki, Mohammed al-Ahmed, Jalal Kadhim, Ali Bufursan, Ali al-Aradi and Khalid al-Shaer.

All of these figures were highly visible in the Bahraini media. They networked widely, were active in the social media and set out their visions on a range of policy areas in a sophisticated and systematic way.

The three representatives of Sunni political societies – Abdulhalim Murad, Mohammed al-Ammadi and Ali al-Muqla – had comprehensive policy platforms taken from their political societies Al-Asalah and Al-Minbar. However, these societies performed exceptionally badly at the elections.

We would also commend the following successful candidates

Adel Hamid, Nasir Qaseer, Osamah al-Khajah, Hamad al-Dossary, Jamila al-Sammak, Dhiyab al-Noaimi, Mohammed al-Maarifi, Ghazi Al Rahmah, Mohammed al-Jowder.

These candidates were also successful in engaging the media and articulating their proposals on a more limited range of issues. For example; Al-Dossary, Al Rahmah and Nasser Qaseer were articulate on youth issues; Al-Maarifi and Adel Hamid spoke out on broader macroeconomic issues; Mohammed al-Jowder had interesting proposals for improving prospects for the disabled and those with special needs; Al-Sammak and Al Rahmah spoke passionately about reconciliation and national unity; and Al-Noaimi prioritized making MPs more accountable and effective.

A number of successful candidates received no media coverage at all. They were not observed to engage in social media activity and were not seen to publish clear policy proposals, for example:

Mohammed Jaffar Milad, Fatimah al-Asfour, Ibrahim Hamadi, Anas Buhindi, Khalifa al-Ghanim, Isa al-Turki and Jamal Buhassan.

How did long-standing deputies wage their campaigns?

The eight independent standing MPs who retained their seats – to varying degrees – were also not observed to be campaigning hard on coherent policy proposals. These MPs generally had relatively little media exposure over the elections period, and few were seen to be issuing any specific political vision.

Adel al-Asoumi, Isa al-Kooheji and Abbas al-Madhi at various times during the campaign explained that they expected to be judged on what they had achieved in their previous parliamentary terms, rather than on their campaigning.

Former MPs Abdulhalim Murad (Asalah), Isa al-Kooheji and Ahmed al-Mulla all won back their seats convincingly in a strong first round win; many of others only narrowly held on to their seats in the second round.

The fact that only eight independent MPs from the previous Parliament and two former deputies representing political societies made it back to Parliament, indicates low levels of public confidence with the performance of the previous Parliament; and the failure of many MPs to wage effective campaigns.

Are clear policy proposals a route to elections success?

In general, the sophistication of a candidate’s policy proposals seemed to be a poor determinant of their success at the ballot box. For example; the numerous candidates representing the National Unity Gathering were among the most articulate and visible in setting out their visions, but none of them won a seat.

Several business figures, lawyers, civil society activists and professionals were appearing in the media on a daily basis, waged expensive campaigns and distributed their policy proposals widely through the social media – and yet performed poorly at the ballot box.

The youth candidates were among the most successful candidates. Hamad al-Dossary, Ghazi Al Rahmah, Mohammed al-Ahmed, Jalal Kadhim, Rua al-Haiki and Nasser Qaseer were among the figures promoting issues of concern for the youth and this translated into a high proportion of votes.

So what kinds of candidates were most successful?

36 out of 40 candidates were independent of any political society. Many of these independents were outspoken in claiming that the voters wanted MPs who were free of any political affiliations or ideology. They also tended to point out that the electorate was looking for fresh faces who were generally not associated with the previous Parliament.

Nearly half of the new MPs had experience in waging previous elections campaigns. This gave them experience in managing their campaigns and also meant that they had already networked widely with local people. Even candidates who had performed very badly in previous rounds of elections performed disproportionately well in 2014.

Almost every candidate at some point in their campaign sought to prioritize the housing issue and living standards. This seems to have arisen very early on that these were the main issues local people were talking about. Many successful candidates were also careful to pick up on local grievances, such as poor infrastructure and services, delayed construction projects, local job creation schemes and facilities for young people.

As we have seen, several candidates like Ibrahim Hamadi, Anas Buhindi, Khalifa al-Ghanim and Isa al-Turki never spoke to the media and apparently never published any set of policy proposals, but won convincingly in their constituencies through waging hard grassroots campaigns and convincing local people that they would advocate their interests. So many of these figures apparently won their seats from little more than showing that they had their fingers on the pulse of local opinion and that they were sympathetic to local concerns. Presumably these candidates were necessarily prominent local figures, who through regular public meetings were able to secure a critical mass of votes.

Do campaign visions reflect parliamentary performance?

In general, the same candidates we highlighted above as being articulate and visible in the media during their campaigns are the same figures who have been notably strong parliamentary performers. Ali al-Aradi went on to be the deputy head of Parliament; while Ali Bufursan, Rua al-Haiki, Adel Hamid, Osamah al-Khajah, Jamila al-Sammak, Mohammed al-Maarifi and Mohammed al-Jowder quickly established themselves as confident performers in Parliament.

The same figures we identified above as having a low media visibility during their campaigns, have continued to have a lower visibility inside Parliament.

Former MPs are an exception to this rule. We may not have seen much in the media of the campaigns of Adel al-Asoumi, Isa al-Kooheji, Ali al-Atish and Ahmed al-Mulla, but these figures appear in the media nearly every day, speaking out in parliamentary sessions and in activities outside Parliament.

Social media activity

During Citizens for Bahrain’s elections coverage we observed that around a third of the candidates were active online. However, their success in using the social media was mixed. Many of these figures had a low Twitter following (at most a few hundred) and even though some candidates were regularly Tweeting elections-related messaging, there was little sharing, distribution or interaction from followers. We judge that social media activity was in most cases a poor determinant of elections success.

As the “Know your Deputy” study has found. Only a limited number of current MPs are active in the social media (13 have Twitter accounts, 7 are on Facebook, although 35 have Instagram accounts). Nineteen MPs regularly use the social media to circulate their news and activity.

Social media interaction with the accounts of MPs generally seems to be limited to specific issues. The scandal of rotten imported meat was a major theme, and the 10 February parliamentary walkout by a small number of MPs generated a lot of speculation.

What can we conclude?

If voters want a candidate who is a strong and visible parliamentary performer – a good indicator is how visible and articulate they are in the media during their campaign?

However, media visibility was actually found to be a poor determinant for success at the ballot box. Many candidates with no media coverage, who focused on grassroots support, won convincing elections victories.

There was little evidence that social media activity correlated with elections success. Successful candidates seemed to be those who succeeded in having a lot of direct contact with their constituents and building personal trust.

Voters in general supported new candidates to Parliament. Those who had unsuccessfully waged campaigns in previous rounds of elections performed very well in 2014.

What are the implications for Bahrain’s developing political maturity?

If every candidate had arrived in Parliament with their own fully-developed political vision for all areas of policy then the result could have been chaos as 40 different political visions vied for attention. In a Parliament where 90% of deputies are independents, then it is difficult to arrive at a situation where a specific set of political visions enjoy wide consensus.

However, the most successful approach seems to have been candidates who put effort into addressing specific areas of policy with a clear set of proposals. Many candidates campaigned on the issue of separating out the wages of husbands and wives in applications for housing allocation. As a result, MPs lobbied with ministers on this issue and it was included in the 2015-2018 Action Plan.

Several MPs have shown themselves to have a particular interest in core issues, like health, public services and the economy. Naturally, this has translated into these MPs being active members of specific parliamentary committees.

Like the writers of the “Know your Deputy” report, we would take issue with those MPs who made little or no effort to advocate specific issues or articulate any kind of precise and realistic political vision. As we have found, the candidates who failed to advocate any clear policies and failed to engage with the media are the same figures who have so far proved to be less visible and less effective parliamentarians (although we wish them luck in proving us wrong here).

We would also take issue with those political societies who campaigned on important issues like housing, employment and education; but now they are in Parliament and are pushing an Islamist agenda which has the effect of reducing social freedoms. A proposed measure for encouraging women to stay at home and avoid the workplace is a good example of this – we are glad to see such a measure receiving the widespread condemnation it deserves.

We would propose a virtuous circle here, where increasingly candidates are voted in who can articulate a clear and desirable political vision; they enter Parliament and do their best to implement their proposals; citizens become better aware of the business of Parliament; failing MPs are penalized at the ballot box and politics becomes more of a collaborative, transparent, representative and accountable process.

The key element here is political awareness. We saw a lot to be optimistic about in the way the 2014 elections were conducted. However, as we have seen above, there were shortcomings in the nature of the campaigning. 

If all successful candidates had produced precise and realistic policy proposals, this would have given Parliament a much stronger mandate for advocating reforms and measures with the Government, based on a clear demonstration of support from a majority of constituents.

We hope that the conditions are right for the next round of elections, in 2018 or before, to be a much clearer contest of competing political visions.

Performance of MPs in the 2014 Parliament

So far, the performance of MPs has been very strong. The increased powers of MPs for approving the 2015-2018 Government Action Plan paved the way for representatives to play a vigourous role in proposing policies to the Government and this led to numerous modifications of the approved Action Plan in line with issues which were demonstrated to be of concern to voters. However, the process for approval of the State Budget over the coming weeks will be a key test for Parliament.

Despite the fact that 75% of MPs are new to Parliament, the 2014 Council of Representatives has already proved itself to be confident and assertive but capable of working constructively with Government ministers.

It is early days, but we hope that this pattern of activism on issues of concern to voters will continue and that those MPs who have yet to assert themselves will also prove themselves to be effective and influential elements of Bahrain’s political system.

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