Once again Bahrain’s Shura Council has been the starting point for progressive and transformative legislation for the betterment of all Bahrainis. The government has been reviewing a proposal from Shura MPs for a unified Family Law which will ensure that both Shia and Sunni women and families have equal rights before the law. This is part of a pattern of forward-looking initiatives from the Shura Council over recent months, such as the legislation for preventing serving clerics from participation in politics which began as a Shura Council proposal; and proposed amendments to the law for protecting victims of rape.
From time to time the question is raised as to why a small country like Bahrain requires a two-chamber Parliament. Ever since Parliament was established through King Hamad’s 2002 National Action Charter, elements of the opposition sought to abolish the second chamber, based on the argument that legislative power should be solely in the hands of elected MPs in the Council of Representatives. However, there are dozens of recent examples which show why the appointed Shura Council is necessary for protecting and consolidating Bahrain’s reformist and tolerant social model. Here are some of the main reasons:
1 – Appointments sanctioned by the King ensures diversity in the legislative process
Elections depend heavily on the public mood and thus often favour a particular party or agenda. The practice of appointing the members of a second chamber, which occurs in a large number of countries, ensures a representative diversity of deputies from all sects and religions, from all social classes, from a range of professions and backgrounds and from the full spectrum of political affiliations. This also ensures that those who are often disfavoured in elections are represented; women, the disabled, minorities, progressives and civil society activists.
2 – Protecting all components of Bahrain’s society
In a country where around half those living here are non-Bahraini residents who do not have a vote, the Shura Council ensures that the rights of everybody are protected and that popular pressures cannot be exerted to restrict the freedoms of visitors, expats and foreign workers. For example; there have been continual pressures over recent months from elected MPs to balance the budget by huge increases in fees, taxes and subsidy cuts solely imposed on non-Bahrainis.
As well as such proposals arguably being unfair, they would also indirectly harm Bahrainis by deterring foreign visitors and making it more expensive for foreigners to work, so driving up costs to businesses and consumers. Some of these proposals have been opposed by the Shura Council on the basis that they are unconstitutional and contradict Bahrain’s international obligations to avoid discrimination. In 2014 some elected MPs proposed that traffic congestion be addressed by banning foreigners from driving!!!
3 – Countering intolerant agendas
Even when Islamist MPs have only won a handful of seats, they tend to be disproportionately influential in persuading conservative MPs to support their agenda in the elected chamber. In recent years we’ve seen proposals for banning tattoos, pork and alcohol; initiatives for dissuading women from working and a bill for forcing the government to only use Islamic banking. The Shura Council has frequently acted as a check on such socially retrogressive legislation which limits the rights and freedoms of people of all religions and would make Bahrain a less desirable destination for tourism.
Between 2006 and 2011, the majority of elected MPs were from either Sunni or Shia religious societies. This meant that Islamists had an automatic veto on all legislation and socially-progressive laws had little chance of success, such as efforts over that period to draft a unified Family Law. During that period the Government frequently sought support from the Shura Council in lobbying in favour of important legislation and preventing proposals drafted by Islamists making it into law. The Shura Council is also an important bulwark for protecting Bahrain’s cultural diversity and freedom of artistic expression from those with an ideological agenda.
4 – Representation of technocratic skills & expertise
The elected chamber of Parliament tends to have a relatively low proportion of MPs with the necessary professional skills – in particular; lawyers, economists, constitutional and governance experts. The appointment of Shura MPs ensures a high proportion of technocrats with a diversity of the required skills for the legislative process. The appointment of a number of the most successful former MPs also means that legislative experience is conserved and consolidated. As a result of this, the Shura Council is often more rigourous than the other chamber in scrutinizing legislation and ensuring that laws are well written.
The majority of elected MPs when they enter Parliament for the first time have zero experience of the legislative process, although a small number may have been municipal councilors. This often means that for the first 18 months of each legislative cycle the performance of the elected chamber tends to be somewhat slow or erratic. The high proportion of experienced legislators in the Shura Council helps compensate for this deficiency in ensuring the smooth passage of legislation.
5 – Protecting the constitution
One of the Shura Council’s most important roles is ensuring the compatibility of legislation with the progressive and reformist vision of Bahrain’s 2002 Constitution, the National Action Charter. The Constitution forbids discrimination on grounds of nationality, religion or gender and enshrines the rights and freedoms of all components of society. As a result, the Shura Council is empowered to amend or block any legislation which they judge to be out of step with the spirit or words of the National Action Charter.
By being appointed by the King, Shura MPs are also accountable to the King in demonstrating dedicated performance and a commitment to King Hamad’s vision for reform and his Constitution; while supporting the democratization process in the context of consolidating Bahrain as a Constitutional Monarchy.
6 – Resisting populist pressures
The elected Council of Representatives is prone to proposing measures which they believe to be popular, but which are unaffordable or impractical. This has recently included proposals for large increases in wages, bonuses and pensions for public sector workers; at a time when the budget has been hit hard by decreased oil revenues.
Elected MPs have also tended to oppose attempts to radically reform the subsidy regime to decrease the burden on the public purse. The Shura Council has tended to be more sensible about considering what is affordable and in supporting measures which may not be popular, but which are necessary for Bahrain’s financial wellbeing. Because it is less influenced by popular and short-term pressures, the Shura Council has tended to be more focused on long term priorities like economic growth and fiscal stability.
7 – The Shura Council defends the rights of women and minorities
The elected Parliament has a patchy record for supporting socially-progressive legislation. Since mid-2015 the Women and Families Committee in the elected chamber has been dominated by Islamist MPs who sought to block pro-women legislation like amendments to the UN’s CEDAW legislation on women’s rights. On the contrary, the Shura Council has always been supportive in expediting such laws. Shura MPs and elected MPs also clashed over the issue of marital rape in the 2015 domestic violence law, with Shura Council MPs emphasizing the right of consent for women.
Bahrain’s Shura Council has always had a much higher proportion of female deputies, while also appointing representatives of minority groups, for example a Jewish MP. The parliamentary elections process has tended to only result in around one-three female MPs making it into Parliament.
8 – The Shura Council is often the starting point for progressive legislation
Time after time, the Shura Council has been the source of far-sighted proposals for guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of Bahrainis. Recent examples include amendments to the rape law, the ban on serving clerics participating in politics, the unified family law proposal and numerous other important proposals.
Elected MPs propose a much higher number of draft bills, but at a time when the government is trying to cut its expenditure; laudable but unrealistic proposals for new community centres, sports facilities, wage increases and new public sector institutions have had a very low success rate in being approved for implementation. Such private bills are also a key tool for Islamists in proposing legislation for reducing social freedoms.
9 – Preventing the “tyranny of the majority”
The theory behind having two chambers of parliament around the world is to ensure a system of mixed government and have the necessary checks and balances in place so that the democratic system is protected. For example, it guards against the scenario of a particular party winning a strong majority and using this mandate to force through anti-democratic legislation and oppress vulnerable minorities.
10 – Giving a voice to moderates and liberals
The division of electoral districts across Bahrain has the result that only a small number of constituencies are amenable to liberal, progressive and female candidates – in particular the couple of constituencies in Isa Town and Zayyid Town; as a result these more diverse constituencies tent to be the most fiercely contested, making it difficult for moderates to win the vote. Meanwhile, areas like Muharraq, central Manama, Riffa and the south and the Shia-majority constituencies in the north tend to be very conservative and often favour Islamic politicians.
Thus, the Shura Council is the only legislative chamber where liberal and progressive voices can expect to be heard and can influence the agenda. It is a paradox that although much of Bahrain tends to be liberal, tolerant and open, the country doesn’t have a good record of electing these tendencies as MPs. However, the royal family, leading figures in the government and the Constitution itself tend to echo this liberal and reformist worldview.