Bahrain’s first formal referendum took place on 14 February 2001.
The referendum asked Bahrainis for their views on King Hamad’s new constitution, the National Action Charter – which provided for a two-chamber Parliament and enshrined the rights of women, minorities and religious groups; while defining the rights and freedoms of all citizens.
There was huge public support for the document and over 98% of Bahrainis voted in favour. The new constitution was promulgated in the context of King Hamad coming to power in 1999 and his ambitious package of reforms. The King issued an amnesty for those exiled abroad and political prisoners were freed.
The reforms also allowed for the establishment of dozens of civil society organizations and political societies, while paving the way for national reconciliation and a period of greater political participation. The National Action Charter marked Bahrain’s decisive move in the direction of Constitutional Monarchy.
The first new parliamentary elections held under this new constitution were on 24 October 2002, although municipal elections had been held earlier in the year. In 2006 and even wider spectrum of political societies participated in the vote, many winning places in the 40-seat elected Council of Representatives. However, it should be noted that the second chamber of Parliament, the appointed Shura Council, dates back to 1992.
The first elections in Bahrain had been held many decades before, shortly after Bahrain declared its independence on 15 August 1971. The Constituent Assembly elections were held on 1 December 1972 for electing the body which would draft and ratify Bahrain’s first post-independence constitution.
The first parliamentary elections were held on 12 December 1973 for seats in the single-chamber National Assembly. However, this body only lasted until 1975, after tensions between members and between the Parliament and the executive led to its dissolution.
Although the 2001 referendum was the first (and, so far, last) such vote of its kind. A survey was conducted by the UN in 1970 which is sometimes described as a referendum: In the early decades of the twentieth century, Iran had repeatedly tried to make groundless claims of sovereignty over Bahrain. In 1970 during this survey, Bahrainis were asked whether they desired independence, or whether they would rather be subject to Iran.
Unsurprisingly, the UN concluded that “the overwhelming majority of the people of Bahrain wish to gain recognition of their identity in a full independent and sovereign State free to decide for itself its relations with other States”. The following year, the Shah of Iran formally renounced any claims over Bahrain.
Both the 1973 and 2001/2002 constitutions and parliaments put Bahrain at the forefront of the Gulf region for political reform and democratization. In particular, the 2001 National Action Charter provided for the full emancipation of women, both as candidates and voters.
2012 constitutional amendments took this process further forward, giving additional powers to elected MPs for scrutinizing and approving legislation.
First for Bahrain
- Bahrain’s first mosque
- First artificial islands
- Female president of UN General Assembly
- First nation to host Gulf Cup
- First mention in historical record
- First modern schools
- First causeway
- First oil well in the region
- First media outlets
- Bahrain’s first lady
- Women in medicine
- International Airshow
- First referendum
- First Grand Prix