In the context of negotiations for who will chair the major Parliament committees, this week has been significant for the emergence of new political alliances within Parliament. Following a year of parliamentary activity during which formal political affiliations were entirely absent, this may mark a turning point for how business is done within the elected Chamber of Deputies.
Over recent months several MPs have been warning that the Government may seek to curb the benefit payments made to lower income families which were designed to counter increases in costs of living – the so-called “counter-inflation benefit”.
Despite these benefits being confirmed in the 2015-2018 Government Action Plan and the State Budget, there were fears that the current economic difficulties facing Bahrain would lead ministers to look at ways to reduce such financial commitments.
This culminated in MPs, during their weekly meeting on 20 October voting in favour of measures to enshrine these payments into law and more clearly define who is entitled to them. As MP Mohammed al-Ahmed pointed out: “This proposal doesn’t introduce anything new, it purely seeks to legislate counter-inflation payments due to the fears arising from economic turbulence”.
Mohammed al-Ahmed was also at the centre of a proposal for imposing fees on remittance payments from Bahrain. Al-Ahmed noted that the total amount remitted last year was around BD 2.5bn and the proposal purely sought to channel a small proportion of that for the benefit of Bahraini citizens.
However, not all MPs were in agreement. It was pointed out that most of these remittances were sent by foreign nationals already on a low income and suffering the adverse effects of subsidy reforms. Jamal Buhassan warned that the proposal could have an adverse effect on Bahrain’s reputation and indirectly harm citizens who would be obliged to pay higher wages to domestic staff and foreign employees.
The debate gave rise to the suggestion that the proposal be studied by the Finance Committee, which would then submit its recommendations back to the Parliament.
On the issue of subsidy reform, MPs agreed to hold their long-awaited open debate on the subject during the next weekly session.
New parliamentary blocs: Accord Bloc
There has been speculative reporting over recent weeks about the possible announcement of new political blocs within Parliament. At the beginning of this week, the Accord Bloc became the first political bloc to see the light of day. The Accord bloc is headed by Isa Turki, along with four other members, all Sunni centre-ground figures; Mohammed al-Maarifi (deputy-chairman), Muhsin al-Bakri (superintendent), Dhiyab al-Noaimi, and Osama al-Khajah.
At the forefront of the bloc’s priorities has been the desire to see a more assertive use of Parliament’s powers, particularly a streamlining of the process for interrogating ministers. All these MPs have stressed the importance of enhancing standards of living in the context of subsidy reforms.
The Accord Bloc on 18 October held a press conference to officially announce its launch. During this event, Al-Bakri stressed the blocs intention to “activate the available constitutional tools” for use by MPs. He strongly criticized the previous Parliament for restricting the usage of ministerial interrogation, saying that the Accord Bloc advocated the need for only one MP calling for an interrogation. Turki criticized the previous parliamentary term for not being sufficiently effective. He added: “I am certain that Parliament failed to utilize the constitutional tools available to it. This reality is plainly true in the case of Parliament’s failure to interrogate the previous Health Minister”.
Al-Khajah emphasized the centrality of the subsidies issue for the Accord Bloc, noting that the bloc prioritized standards of living. He pointed out that while Government efforts to economize its spending were necessary in the current context, this must not harm the public.
Al-Bakri noted the bloc’s coordination with other MPs for agreeing on the composition of the main five committees. He said that there was close coordination with the National Bloc (see below) and “three other MPs”. Turki said that the bloc had played a role in securing the election of Abbas al-Madhi and Ali al-Atish for the Services and Legal Committees, while noting that two members – Al-Maarifi and Al-Bakri – now held deputy chairman positions. Turki refused to directly answer journalists’ questions concerning whether the bloc played a deliberate role in removing Isa al-Kooheji from the Finance Committee (see below), but said that the bloc had supported Abdulrahman Bu-Ali’s successful candidacy.
Al-Maarifi acknowledged that he was seeking to chair the Human Rights Committee, stressing the importance of this Committee’s role. Al-Khajah has been put forward as the Bloc’s candidate for chairman of the Youth and Sports Committee.
Al-Maarifi, Al-Bakri and Al-Noaimi are all MPs from neighbouring constituencies in the Southern Governorate. There had been hints that two or three MPs from nearby constituencies may affiliate themselves, i.e.; Khalifa al-Ghanim and Abdullah Bin-Huwail; although the relatively activist agenda of the bloc may have been out-of-step with their rather more loyalist instincts. The Salafist MP Anas Buhindi has recently co-signed statements by Accord Bloc MPs and probably can be considered an ally
New parliamentary blocs: National Bloc
On 17 October, MP Ahmed Qaratah spoke to the media about the establishment of the Bahrain National Bloc, whose existence had been reported several months before, but effectively came into being around the elections for chairmanship of the committees. It should be noted that this bloc has yet to be formally announced and its membership may still be fluid.
The bloc is to be headed by Abdulrahman Bumjaid and will reportedly include Mohammed al-Jowder, Ali Bufarsan, Ibrahim al-Hammadi and Ahmed Qaratah – all of whom were previously reported as being part of such a bloc – along with new additions Mohammed al-Ahmed and Mohammed al-Ammadi (representing pro-Muslim Brotherhood Al-Minbar).
Qaratah told reporters: “This bloc was already in existence during the previous parliamentary term, but required additional arrangements and coordination prior to being officially announced. This took place during the parliamentary vacation when we endeavoured to cement agreements in order to achieve parliamentary goals in line with the aspirations of citizens”.
In the past, it was difficult to get an idea what kind of orientation such a National Bloc would have. Qaratah and Al-Jowder are outspoken figures, given to speaking out against the Government, while Bumjaid and Al-Hammadi are more low-key figures. Ali Bufarsan is a highly active politician, given to proposing imaginative initiatives, but in general he is a non-confrontational MP.
The inclusion of Al-Ahmed and Al-Ammadi – two of the most outspoken figures in the Parliament and, like Qaratah and Al-Jowder, given to speaking out on good governance and financial issues – would clearly suggest a more confrontational and activist orientation for the new bloc.
Over the summer, there were clearly serious attempts to unite the two embryonic Accord and National Blocs, but despite both groupings being composed of Sunni centre-ground MPs, the orientations and personalities are probably too different.
As discussed above, the Accord Bloc and its affiliates are centred around Riffa and the southern constituencies and so has a more conservative/loyalist orientation. Three core National Bloc members and a couple of its affiliates (Jamal Buhassan and maybe Abdulrahman Bu-Ali) are from Muharraq where economic grievances tend to be more keenly felt, so this bloc looks to be more activist and confrontational in its make-up.
New parliamentary blocs: Others
As reported last week, the media is talking about a possible third bloc to be announced. This bloc straddles the sectarian divide, because as well as including most of the Shia MPs (Jalal al-Mahfoudh, Ghazi Al Rahmah, Abbas al-Madhi, Nasir al-Qaseer, Majid al-Asfour, Majid al-Majid, Jamila al-Sammak, Ali al-Aradi, Fatimah al-Asfour and Adel Bin-Hamid); the bloc also includes several prominent Sunni figures, like Isa al-Kooheji, Hamad al-Dossary and Khalid al-Shaer.
Although there has been little serious talk about a formal Islamist or Salafist coalition, it is notable that Islamist figures like Abdulhalim Murad, Ali al-Muqla, Anas Buhindi, Abdulhamid al-Najjar and Nabil al-Balooshi have kept their distance from the other coalition-building exercises. Murad and Al-Muqla are members of the Salafist Al-Asalah political society and so the media occasionally talks about this handful of MPs as an informal “Asalah Bloc”.
These figures clearly share compatible social agendas, but it is unclear whether there is any intention to ever move beyond this to establish a formal alliance. It should be remembered that political societies performed very badly during the November 2014 elections, so some MPs may feel a reluctance to be affiliated with anything more formal than a loose alliance.
Coup in the Financial Committee
During the 14 October special session for voting on chairmanship of the five permanent committees, the Parliament Administration had initially refused petitions for altering the members of committee, but was forced to concede in the face of strong pressure from numerous MPs.
Following extensive negotiations prior to this session, it was clear that several of the new political blocs had focused their attention on radical changes within the Finance Committee.
Chairman Isa al-Kooheji and his deputy Nasir al-Qaseer have been accused by some MPs of not being sufficiently tough on ministers during the long negotiations over the State Budget early in the summer. Certainly the Accord and National Blocs had decided in advance to force through certain changes to this Committee, favouring Abdulrahman Bu-Ali as the new Chairman.
The Administration agreed to hold a vote, giving MPs the opportunity to vote for all those who decided to put forward their candidacy for membership of the Finance Committee. In the event; Isa al-Kooheji, Khalid al-Shaer and Nasir al-Qaseer were voted off the Committee with only 10, 11 and 15 votes respectively.
During the same vote, Jalal al-Mahfoudh won 37 votes, Mohammed al-Ammadi won 36 votes, Abdulrahman Bu-Ali 35 votes, Mohammed al-Ahmed 35 votes, Adel Bin-Hamid 34 votes, Majid al-Asfour 31 votes, Ahmed Qaratah 28 votes and Ali Bufarsan 25 votes. Abdulrahman Bu-Ali was selected as the Chairman of the Finance Committee with Al-Mahfoudh as his deputy.
Competition for committee roles has clearly been fierce, although the changes in the Finance Committee would seem to be the most brutal. The changes to the other committees were reported in the previous week’s Week in Parliament. It should be noted that for all the smaller committees, membership and leadership still has not been confirmed.
Know your deputy: MPs profiles
Adel al-Asoumi – 1st Capital
Head of Permanent Committee for Public Utilities and Environment
Ahmed Qaratah – 2nd Capital
Adel Bin-Hamid Abdulhussain – 3rd Capital
Deputy-Head of Parliamentary Human Rights Committee
Abdulrahman Bumjaid – 4th Capital
Nasser al-Qaseer – 5th Capital
Ali al-Atish – 6th Capital
Head of the Permanent Committee for Shari’ah and Legal Matters
Osamah al-Khajah – 7th Capital
Shaikh Majid al-Asfour – 8th Capital
Mohammed Jaffar Milad – 9th Capital
Nabil al-Balooshi – 10th Capital
Ali Bufarsan – 1st Muharraq
Head of Committee for Youth and Sports
Ibrahim al-Hammadi – 2nd Muharraq
Jamal Buhassan – 3rd Muharraq
Isa al-Kooheji – 4th Muharraq
Mohammed al-Jowder – 5th Muharraq
Abbas al-Madhi – 6th Muharraq
Ali al-Muqla – 7th Muharraq
Abdulrahman Bu-Ali – 8th Muharraq
Head of the Permanent Committee for Financial and Economic Matters
Fatimah al-Asfour – 1st Northern
Deputy Head of the Committee for Women and Children
Jalal Kadhim al-Mahfoudh – 2nd Northern
Deputy Head of the Permanent Committee for Financial and Economic Matters
Deputy Head of Committee for Youth and Sports
Hamad al-Dossary – 3rd Northern
Ghazi Al Rahmah – 4th Northern
Ali al-Aradi – 5th Northern
Deputy Head of Parliament
Rua al-Haiki – 6th Northern
Shaikh Majid al-Majid – 7th Northern
Dr. Isa Turki – 8th Northern
Abdulhamid Abdulhussain al-Najjar – 9th Northern
Deputy Head of Committee for Supporting the Palestinian People
Mohammed al-Ammadi – 10th Northern
Head of Committee for Supporting the Palestinian People
Jamal Dawoud – 11th Northern
Jamila al-Sammak – 12th Northern
Head of the Committee for Women and Children
Khalid al-Shaer – 1st Southern
Head of Parliamentary Human Rights Committee
Mohammed al-Ahmed – 2nd Southern
Abdulhalim Murad – 3rd Southern
Second Deputy Head of Parliament
Mohammed al-Maarifi – 4th Southern
Deputy Head of the Permanent Committee for Services
Khalifa al-Ghanim – 5th Southern
Anas Buhindi – 6th Southern
Deputy Head of the Permanent Committee for Shari’ah and Legal Matters
Abdullah Bin-Huwail – 7th Southern
Head of the Permanent Committee for Foreign, Defence and National Security Affairs
Dhiyab al-Noaimi – 8th Southern
Mohsin al-Bakri – 9th Southern
Deputy Head of Permanent Committee for Public Utilities and Environment
Ahmed al-Mulla – 10th Southern
Head of Parliament