The benefits of civil society for Bahrain and for you
Why do MPs get blamed for everything?
Citizens all over the world (and perhaps especially in Bahrain) tend to have something of a passive-aggressive attitude to their parliamentary representatives: They mostly ignore them when everything is going well; and then blame them for everything when the going gets tough!
MPs themselves are often guilty of unrealistically raising expectations, with impossible promises at elections time; but then failing to properly engage with the public to explain their role and represent their achievements and failures once they have won their seats.
Is there a role that civil society can play in helping to manage this tormented relationship between the public and its representatives? Definitely!
It is clear that a lot of people (including many candidates who want to win seats in Parliament) do not have a very clear idea what MPs actually do and what their powers are. For example, in the 2014 Bahrain parliamentary elections a lot of candidates promised to increase wages for their constituents.
This is of course not something that MPs have direct influence over – particularly in the difficult economic climate of the last couple of years. However, clearly many voters believed that an effective MP should be able to give them higher wages – and voted on this basis – and of course they will be disappointed.
So what can be done about this dysfunctional relationship where candidates promise the impossible and then are blamed when they fail to deliver? The answer has to be mostly about raising public awareness.
Raising awareness at election time
At election time, voters must be in an informed position for judging who the best candidates are. This means that they must have a clear idea of what MPs have to do – and then they have to be in possession of the information to judge which is the most capable candidate.
In the 2014 elections, most candidates did not bother to write a comprehensive policy platform with realistic proposals and their vision for Bahrain. In most cases what you got was an attractive photo and a slogan plastered over numerous billboards. Often it was difficult to get access to a comprehensive CV for candidates. Many candidates emphasized their religious credentials but said little about political specifics.
Civil society can play a role here in helping present information about candidates in each constituency, so that the public are better able to compare who they are voting for and what their skills and experience are.
Constituents should understand that voting for someone from the same tribe and sect, or with the strongest religious credentials, won’t necessarily result in the strongest candidate in a demanding role which requires knowledge about issues like law, the economy, legislation, job-creation and public services.
When the selection process focuses on the evidence-based capabilities of candidates, then individuals will have less chance of success if they fail to provide information, lack a vision, or their claims do not reflect reality.
We should aim to get candidates with the highest skill-set, wide experience and a genuine passion for serving their country into Parliament.
How can we know if MPs keep their promises? By watching closely what they do when they get into Parliament.
In many cases the public unfairly judge their representatives. You will hear people saying: “My MP hasn’t done anything” “They are all useless and corrupt” “They are only out for themselves”. There may be some truth in some of these claims, but these expressions of frustration are often not based on a careful evaluation of what MPs have done in reality.
It is often difficult to get a comprehensive picture of the record of MPs, beyond sporadic reports in the newspapers. Even the Bahrain Parliament official website contains very little useful information about such things. For a period, Citizens for Bahrain conducted a complete survey about the day-to-day activity of MPs and weekly reporting of developments in Parliament.
This kind of reporting is very useful in showing how some MPs are very vocal and active; some are quietly working behind the scenes in committees; while others don’t seem to be doing much at all. Some MPs are very focused on employment, education and health; while others have a wholly religious agenda.
The public should be encouraged to critically judge the actual performance of their MPs. This judgment should be based on evidence and a realistic awareness of what is expected from representatives.
On some occasions over the past year a wave of public and media criticism has generated a panicked response from MPs, leading to proposals for interrogating ministers, open debates on hot issues or voting against unpopular but necessary legislation.
Such responses are not necessarily in the public interest and sometimes result in further ridicule when hasty proposals end up being rejected. This also results in MPs being focused on very short-term goals, rather than strategic objectives, like economic growth and job creation.
Towards more mature parliamentary politics
As we have seen, the weak role of civil society in parliamentary life has tended to result in the public not being well informed; weak levels of competition between candidates; and a lack of clear-sighted evaluation of what is expected of MPs and whether they are performing.
This lack of clarity puts MPs in an impossible situation, because there is no clear and realistic agreement between Parliament and the public as to what is expected.
Only civil society can fill this gap by working to inform the public and giving greater exposure to work of Parliament. Civil society can also help bring MPs and the public closer together through events, debate, social media interaction and helping open up Parliament to the public.
The media also should play a role. However, it has sometimes made the problem worse by on one side simply publishing statements by MPs without context or evaluation – and on other occasions simply publishing angry responses by the public; without doing more to stimulate an informed debate and encourage better understanding and engagement on both sides.
Parliamentary life is vital for the political health of our society. When it works well Parliament gives a voice to the public within the political system; representing their aspirations and ensuring that the best interests of citizens are factored into legislation.
We hope that there will be greater support given to civil society to help nurture this public-parliamentary relationship for the good of both sides.
ABC of civil society