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Bahrain and the ballot box


Rodger Shanahan


26 October 2010 15:58

The results of last Saturday's parliamentary elections in Bahrain will confirm the worst fears of many in the Sunni world — democratic elections can only strengthen the hand of the Shi'a and, by association, Iran. One need look no further than Iraq to see what transpires when Sunni primacy is disturbed at the ballot box. The natural order of things is overturned, chaos ensues and Iran expands its influence courtesy of its co-religionists because (as all right-thinking people know) for the Shi'a, sectarianism trumps nationalism. 

But the price for this view of stability is Shi'a disenfranchisement. And in cases where Shi'a are the majority, that actually strengthens the likelihood of instability in the long run.

For those Sunnis wedded to the 'give them an inch and they'll take a mile' view of Shi'a politicisation, 2005 was a pivotal year. Iraq gave the Arab world its first Shi'a-led government and even the Saudis allowed the Shi'a to vote; Shi'a candidates won all five contested seats on the ten-man Qatif municipal council. 

The increasing political and military power of Hizbullah in Lebanon from 2006 onward and the ongoing war with the Zaydis in Yemen (who nearly all Arab commentators describe as Shi'a, even though their connections with mainstream Shi'ism are rather tenuous) give more ammunition to those who see every political gain for the Shi'a as a gain for Iran; indigenous motivating factors behind Shi'a politicisation are rarely acknowledged.

The conflation of Arab Shi'a political aspirations with Iran recalls a saying popular in Lebanon in the 1960s and 1970s: 'Shi'i Shuyu'i' ('a Shi'a, a communist'). The leftist parties offered the only promise of social and political reform and so were attractive to the Shi'a, but Christian and Sunni interests sought to delegitimise their aspirations by associating them with a movement anathema to the West.

The same forces are at play in the Gulf state of Bahrain, where the Sunni rulers' reluctance to cede any meaningful authority to the Shi'a majority threatens to further alienate the community rather than engender loyalty to the centre, as this synopsis from The Economist points out. 

Last weekend's election saw the main Bahraini Shi'a political party, al-Wifaq, get all of its 18 candidates elected, one up from the 17 it secured in the 2006 election. But with an upper house and cabinet entirely appointed by the king, the possibility of meaningful political reforms is negligible, and Shi'a willingness to seek change through the political system alone decreases with each passing election.

Photo by Flickr user Pricey, used under a Creative Commons license.