Bahrain reform proposals fail to win over opposition
Proposals for a stronger lower house of parliament in Bahrain after the suppression of pro-democracy unrest give it more powers of scrutiny but not to pass legislation, preserving the dominance of an upper house appointed by the royal elite.
Bahrain’s National Dialogue, a state body appointed to address grievances after martial law was rescinded in May, published details on Thursday of proposals for the Gulf monarchy’s parliament to have a greater say in decision-making.
But opposition figures voiced dissatisfaction with the results and critics said they would carry little weight because the country’s largest Shiite opposition group, Wefaq, walked out of the process last week.
Sunni Muslim rulers called in troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in March to help quell protests led by majority Shiite Muslims, who complain of discrimination. The government said the unrest was sectarian and backed by non-Arab Shiite power Iran. Bahraini Shiites denied this.
The official BNA news agency said earlier this week that the final session of the dialogue had proposed expanding the powers of the elected parliament but gave no information on greater legislative and monitoring powers sought by the opposition.
The details show agreement on a greater degree of oversight of government by the elected body but no progress towards resolving the key dispute over balance of power.
“They did not agree on whether the Shura Council (upper house) should be granted the same powers as the parliament, and whether the responsibility for lawmaking and oversight should be restricted to the elected chamber,” the summary sent to Reuters by the National Dialogue body said.
“Delegates did not reach consensus on a number of further suggestions, such as limiting the term for ministers and head of government or a fixed quota for women in parliament.”
The appointed upper house has just as many seats as the elected lower house and dominates the legislative process.
Impasse over upper house’s dominance
Wefaq spokesman Khalil Al Marzouq said he expected the proposals would be approved by the king later on Thursday amid media fanfare even though they failed to address most Bahrainis desire for a parliament not hamstrung by the upper assembly.
“The reason we pulled out is because of this. The upper house should only be there for consultation,” he said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, in his post for 40 years, is regarded as a leading hawk within the ruling family who opposes concessions to the opposition.
The summary said the prime minister, appointed by King Hamad bin Isa, would have to secure the approval of parliament for members of his government.
“If MPs disapprove they can vote to reject the entire government. Parliament will also have the power to reject the government’s four-year work plan,” it said. “These reforms guarantee that the government’s composition and work plan will reflect the will of the people.”
It also said cabinet ministers would have to attend some parliament sessions and face questioning in the open chamber rather than within the framework of committees.
“Overall, these decisions reinforce the parliament’s powers of scrutiny over the activities of the government,” it said.
The proposals would create a similar system to Kuwait, where the cabinet is formed by a premier appointed by the emir of the ruling Al Sabah family rather than the elected parliament. Kuwait’s parliament often makes use of its right to call ministers for questioning, frequently paralyzing the assembly. Kuwait’s parliament is not hamstrung by an appointed chamber.
The summary said the dialogue had agreed there are problems with Bahrain’s electoral system but did not agree on how to solve it. Opposition groups say constituencies are designed to water down Shiite demographic strength.
“The debate centered on equal representation of the population. Critics of the current system argued that the geographical distribution of constituencies did not reflect the demographics of Bahrain,” it said.
“Others defended the current arrangement, noting that smaller constituencies allow MPs better familiarity with their community. They feared that reducing the number of constituencies would create sectarian quotas in parliament, leading to political crisis.”
Bahrain has tried to address international criticism, including from its long-time ally the United States, of a harsh security crackdown that followed the breakup of the protests.
Bahrain, home port to the US Fifth Fleet, is seen as a fault line for tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of Sunni Islam.