24 – 30 March 2016
MPs defied the Government this week by refusing to vote in favour of the closing 2014 State Budget statement, claiming that the Government had failed to keep its promises to citizens.
The most divisive issue in Parliament was once again a draft bill for ratifying the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – which the Parliament Chairman tried to force a vote on.
We also analyze what appears to be a significant realignment of parliamentary affiliations; with the announcement of a “Joint Coordination Committee”. This brings together the three largest parliamentary blocs, which had until recently been sharply divided on many issues.
Budget statement rejected
A majority of MPs on 29 March voted to reject the closing account statement for the 2014 State Budget. Many MPs alluded to the fact that the Government hadn’t kept the promises which it had made when it first unveiled this Budget. A particular complaint was the lack of progress in diversifying away from oil.
Abdulhalim Murad said: “The State depends entirely on oil revenues, while there is a continual growth in repeated expenditures and a failure to use the Budget for the defined projects… some people judge this behavior by the Government to be deliberate”.
However, the Finance Minister responded by saying that MPs shouldn’t try and enforce unrealistic standards and argued that Government initiatives had succeeded in making savings of BD 814 million over the course of a year.
Furthermore the Minister noted that most of the increased expenditure was incurred by fulfilment of previous MPs’ proposals and parliamentary demands for expanding State apparatuses and raising levels of benefits.
Angry confrontations as CEDAW returns to the agenda
On 28 March, Bahrain’s Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla took the unprecedented move of overruling the Women and Children’s Committee and ordering an immediate vote on CEDAW (the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) during the 29 March weekly Parliament session, despite the Women’s Committee’s protestations that it’s work on the bill was still incomplete.
Astonishingly, Al-Mulla went further and urged MPs to vote in favour of the bill; after MP Rua al-Haiki’s Women’s Committee had steadfastly opposed the draft.
The draft bill removes a number of reservations concerning the CEDAW convention which had been previously written into Bahraini law; bringing Bahrain into full compliance with this international legislation and expanding the rights of women in Bahrain.
However, Islamists have continually opposed such moves and since the election of Al-Haiki as Chairwoman of the Women and Children’s Committee in November 2015, her Committee (including several Islamist and conservative figures) has also opposed the bill, despite strong support from the Supreme Council for Women, the Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Government.
There has also been vocal advocacy in favour of the bill from civil society organizations like the Bahrain Women’s Union and Citizens for Bahrain.
Ahmed al-Mulla is a Chairman who commands high levels of respect from MPs and across the Bahrain political spectrum. However, he has not been known for asserting his personal views, nor driving legislation in particular directions or making sudden changes to the parliamentary agenda – which makes this step even more astonishing.
In his statement included within the Parliament session agenda, Al-Mulla clarified that “Parliament gave the Committee six extension periods since the bill was referred on 5 January 2015.” He criticized the “unjustified delay” in processing the bill, concluding: “I request of your Council that you take the decision on this draft law today. I offer your respected Council the recommendation that you vote in favour of this draft”.
Unsurprisingly, this drew a furious response from the Women Committee’s Rua al-Haiki. She said that Al-Mulla’s statement was an “affront against the Committee and its Chairwoman and an unprecedented move devoid of the professionalism required for the work of Parliament”
Al-Haiki said that it would be wrong to submit the Committee’s recommendations while important information was lacking. In particular she said that she had not received documentation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Committee requested two weeks previously. She also complained that the Supreme Council for Women hadn’t yet responded to requests for information.
Al-Haiki accused the Parliament Chairman of “discrimination” against her Women’s Committee and called on MPs to take a stand against the decision, saying: “There are many bills and drafts in the drawers of other parliamentary committees. Why this draft in particular?”
Al-Haiki in her statement once again cited all the legal technicalities which she believed stood in the way of ratification of this bill, particularly the ambiguity over whether the bill represented a withdrawal of previous reservations over CEDAW or a revision of these reservations.
Many MPs were taken aback at the strength of Al-Haiki’s rebuke to the Parliament’s Chairman. During the Parliament session Jamal Buhassan said: “We reject attacks against the chairmanship, especially through the media. This is totally unacceptable”.
Predictably, the issue proved to be highly divisive during the 29 March session. Al-Haiki repeated her strong condemnations of the Chairman’s move and her Salafist ally Anas Buhindi accused Al-Mulla of “marginalizing” their Committee. Al-Haiki and Buhindi both stressed that they were still waiting for further information from the Supreme Council for Women and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
This prompted the Supreme Council for Women to issue a statement denying this, saying that it had submitted its own observations in full. Supreme Council Secretary-General, Hala al-Ansari, took the opportunity to point out that the draft bill only represented a “redraft” not a “withdrawal” of the CEDAW reservations; stating that the bill “does not contradict the commands of Islamic law and does not undermine the sovereignty of the state”.
Buhindi demanded that the Committee needed a further two weeks to submit its recommendations. A compromise proposal was suggested and agreed on for a one week delay; at which the session descended into open confrontations between a number of MPs; in particular between Khaled al-Shaer who demanded that the bill be voted on immediately and Women’s Committee member Muhsin al-Bakri who said that the issue was none of Al-Shaer’s business.
This sets the stage for yet another parliamentary confrontation on the CEDAW issue next week.
When the CEDAW draft previously went to Parliament on , it was clear that a majority of MPs intended to vote against the draft; particularly MPs from the Islamist, Accord and National Blocs, along with the Women’s Committee itself.
However, with assertive support from the Parliament Chairman and many other influential public bodies asserting their support, this may turn the tide in favour of CEDAW. This bill is an important step for bringing Bahrain into line with its international obligations for protecting women’s rights.
The first year of the 2014 Parliament’s work was defined by the fact that most MPs were independents and new to Parliament. In October 2015, at the beginning of the second parliamentary year, Parliament began to look more polarized, as different blocs began to emerge.
Until recently, it looked like Parliament may come to remain divided down the middle with the relatively progressive National Participation Bloc and its allies – a mix of Shia and Sunni MPs – facing a number of smaller blocs (National, Accord, Asalah, Minbar), made up of mainly Sunni conservative MPs.
As recently as the beginning of March, this split appeared to be formalized with reports of an 18-member ‘super-bloc’ to be constituted from these above four Sunni conservative and Islamist groupings. This progressive/conservative division was very much reflected in parliamentary business, with the two sides taking opposed positions on key legislation and voting against each other proposals.
However, there appear to be serious efforts to address these divisions, culminating in the 27 March announcement of a “Joint Coordination Committee” being formed out of the three largest blocs (Participation, National and Accord).
This grouping will initially be headed by Chairman of the National Bloc, Abdulrahman Bumjaid. Bumjaid is one of the longest-serving MPs and is a sober figure, not given to taking vocal positions on controversial issues; so he is a sensible choice as a reconciliatory leader from the outset.
Bumjaid told Al-Ayam newspaper that there would be a monthly rotation of the presidency of this committee, with each of the three blocs fielding two representatives to sessions of the Committee. The plan is for representatives of all three groupings to meet ahead of parliamentary sessions in the attempt to coordinate their positions.
If this is successful, it could make parliamentary sessions far more efficient and expedite legislation, as well as avoiding wasting parliamentary time with factional disputes. Many MPs hope that greater unity would make Parliament a far more effective force in challenging unpopular Government decisions. This alliance would include around 20 MPs (9 Participation Bloc, 6 National Bloc, and 5 Participation Bloc).
Bumjaid mentioned that the two Islamist societies Al-Asalah and Al-Minbar had been invited to join, but had so far not accepted the invitation.
Week in politics
Continued reform efforts:5 – 11 May 2016
Social media attacks: 20-27 April 2016
Shura Council rejects “Islamicization”: 7-13 April 2016
CEDAW victory: 31 March – 6 April 2016
MPs reject budget statement: 24 – 30 March 2016
Pensions dispute: 17 – 23 March 2016
Committees of inquiry: 10 – 16 March 2016
Protection for Shia families: 3 – 9 March 2016
Political societies in decline: 25 Feb – 2 Mar
Lebanon travel restrictions: 19-24 Feb
Constitution celebrations: 11-18 Feb
Russia State visit: 4-10 Feb