In a tent in the fourth district of Riffa, Bahrain’s second-largest city, men and women listen intently as their candidate of choice, Fawzia Zainal, urges them to continue voting for her ahead of run-off parliamentary elections on Saturday.
One of five women left vying for a place in Bahrain’s 40-seat lower house of parliament, Zainal tells her potential constituents: “You will decide who will hold the responsibility for the laws, regulations and bills that will hopefully ease the path of Bahrain’s future in the next four years.”
Voters are Bahrainis and we have not classified any as representing the government, or others who are not... Everyone should take a patriotic stand to have people's demands fulfilled by placing importance on constitutional bodies.
Bahraini citizens are gearing up for a final run-off vote on Saturday after only six candidates – four Sunni independents, an independent Shia and incumbent Abdul-Halim Murad, a Salafist from the al-Asalah group – won their seats in the first round of voting last week.
The remaining 34 seats were left undecided as none of the candidates in each district claimed an outright majority of 51 percent, due to the high number of candidates vying for parliamentary seats.
Voter turnout on November 22 was 51.5 percent, according to Bahraini authorities, while the staunch Shia-led opposition group al-Wefaq placed that number much lower, at 30 percent. The group boycotted this year’s elections in response to what it called a continuing government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and the failure of national unity talks with the government.
Sameera Rajab, Bahrain’s minister of state for information affairs and the government’s official spokeswoman, condemned the opposition’s calls to boycott Saturday’s run-off vote, noting it was up to the people to decide for themselves: “Voters are Bahrainis and we have not classified any as representing the government, or others who are not,” Rajab told local Bahraini reporters last week. “Everyone should take a patriotic stand to have people’s demands fulfilled by placing importance on constitutional bodies.”
Rajab has said previously that the opposition tends to raise the threat of a boycott “in an attempt to open the door for foreign interference in our domestic affairs” – a reference to Shia Iran.
This is the island kingdom’s first full parliamentary elections since a wave of political unrest gripped Bahrain nearly four years ago.
Political rivals have struggled to bury their differences through a national dialogue that fell apart several times over the past four years. The Shia majority population has long demanded more rights and freedoms, while their political arm, al-Wefaq, continues to advocate for a constitutional monarchy.
Joseph Kechichian, a political analyst specialising in Gulf relations, says the problem stems from the power-sharing dilemma between the Shia majority and the Sunni-ruling minority. “We are in a deadlock situation with neither the government nor the opposition ready to concede much,” Kechichian told Al Jazeera. “The time has come to stop the bickering because nothing will change on the ground except to see a repetition of ongoing clashes.”
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In the last election, 16 independents won seats in the parliament. According to Citizens for Bahrain, a group of young and moderate Bahrainis, nearly three-quarters of the new parliament will be made up of new faces, while former MPs belonging to political societies will become the minority.
Although he noted it was still too early to know whether independents would win a clear majority in Saturday’s run-off, Kechichian said they tend to do better “when the Islamist voice is somewhat limited, and al-Wefaq’s boycott [also] helps”.
Mohammed Al Sayed, a spokesperson for Citizens for Bahrain, told Al Jazeera citizens may have realised “that independents with no religious agendas might serve them better – and pay greater attention to the issues that affect them – than Sunni or Shia Islamist parties”.
Both Kechichian and Al Sayed agreed that an independent-heavy parliament may be able to usher in a period of relative peace in the country.
“Bahrain could benefit from a lower level of the debate that has gotten out of hand as extremists spilled onto the streets and filled the airwaves,” Kechichian said. “The rise of the independents might help both the government as well as the opposition – the former because the debate will be less hostile, the latter because independents would insist on meaningful reforms.”
After three years of negotiations between al-Wefaq and the Bahraini government, the opposition says the latest poll, regardless of who wins a majority in parliament, will not solve the island kingdom’s political stalemate.
“We were part of the political process in the parliament and we haven’t seen any seriousness in the regime in Bahrain to solve important issues like discrimination, social justice, jobs for Bahrainis and housing issues,” said Ali Al Aswad, a member of al-Wefaq and a former opposition MP.
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Such remarks have not been welcomed by moderate groups, including Citizens for Bahrain, which calls them counterproductive to the process of reconciliation.
“Al-Wefaq should have joined the elections, raised their concerns through parliament and distanced themselves from the radical February 14 movement that has refused dialogue and chosen the path of terror and violence,” Al Sayed said. “By boycotting these elections and their seats being filled by others, al-Wefaq might lose its relevance with time.”
For now, Bahrain continues to face unrest, including sporadic street protests and clashes between activists and riot police. As Bahraini citizens gear up to vote on Saturday, some fear that a new parliament may not be able to help overcome the political stalemate.
“I hope that it is not too late to save Bahrain,” Kechichian said. “But current actors on both sides are too vested in their respective positions to make much of a difference.”