Cablegate: Grading Bahrain's Parliament

DE RUEHMK #0660/01 3221354
R 181354Z NOV 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MANAMA 000660


E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/18/2019


Classified By: Ambassador Adam Ereli for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

SUMMARY -------

1.(C) As Bahrain's parliament nears the end of its second full session since being restored in 2002, it has lived both up, and down, to expectations. Parliament, particularly the elected lower house, remains a work in progress, but has shown signs of growth and evolution over the past seven years. By bringing in the mainstream Shia opposition, and providing a forum for public debate, the parliament has helped bolster internal stability and security. End summary. ---------- BACKGROUND ----------

2.(C) Following the death of Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa in 1999, Emir (now King) Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa embarked on a program of reform and reconciliation with Bahrain's Shia majority. Restoring the parliament suspended since 1975 was a major element of that program. Originally a unicameral body, King Hamad gained approval in a national referendum in 2000 for a bicameral parliament in which he appoints the forty members of the upper house (Shura Council) while the forty members of the lower house (Council of Representatives) are elected by popular vote. Shia parties boycotted the first election in 2002 and remained outside the legal political system until the mainstream Wifaq party decided in 2005 that it would enter the fray for the 2006 election cycle. Wifaq won seventeen seats, amidst allegations that elements within the government had orchestrated a campaign of gerrymandering and vote tampering to prevent it from securing a majority. Sunni Islamist parties (the Salafist Asala, the Muslim Brotherhood's Minbar Islami, and Mustaqbal) won nineteen seats, while Sunni independents took the remaining four. MPs are now gearing up for the 2010 election cycle. ------------------------------------ LIVING UP, AND DOWN, TO EXPECTATIONS ------------------------------------

3.(C) From the government's perspective, parliament has done what it was intended to do. It has contributed to internal security and stability by giving the Shia opposition a forum in which to air its grievances, and it has devolved much of the traditional tribal problem-solving, formerly handled by the Al Khalifa family, down to MPs. Moreover, in the eyes of Bahrain's leaders, it has achieved these aims without what they view as the chaos of the Kuwaiti parliamentary experience. Ruling and business elites will often cite Kuwait's volatile parliament as the reason why Bahrain must proceed slowly and maintain constitutional limitations on the body's power. They fear that a Kuwaiti-style legislature would be unworkable here due to Bahrain's sectarian divisions.

4.(C) The appointed Shura Council is the most direct of those limitations. Chosen personally by the King, its members are considered to be the wise men (and women) of Bahrain and above the influence of the popular demands of the street. According to the Foreign Minister, the King uses his appointments of Shura members to balance out underrepresentation in the elected Council of Representatives. (For example, because only one woman was elected to the lower House, the King appointed 10 women - including Christian and Jewish members - to the upper house.) The Shura Council acts as a check on the Council of Representatives in so much as it must review and approve bills passed by the elected MPs before they can go to the King for ratification.

5.(C) The Bahrain of 2009 is a far cry from the unrest of the 1990s. State security courts have been abolished, street protests are considerably fewer and less violent, and Wifaq, as a legal, parliamentary opposition, has proven its ability to channel most Shia political energy into non-violent protests. Since its 2005 decision to join the parliamentary political process, Wifaq has portrayed itself as a loyal opposition and has won the quiet respect of the interior ministry for its ability to organize peaceful demonstrations of tens of thousands of supporters. The party's leader, Ali Salman, has told us unequivocally that Wifaq will continue to participate in parliamentary politics because he believes there is more to gain in the long run by participating than by boycotting.

6.(C) MPs have in many ways taken on the role of tribal MANAMA 00000660 002 OF 003 elder, receiving constituents in their weekly majlis meetings to hear their complaints and address their needs. While constituents bring legitimate grievances over bureaucratic delays in public housing or social services, many expect their MPs to provide jobs, cars, even cash, as the traditional elders did. In this respect, the government has deflected many of these demands away from the royal family and ministries, and onto the elected members of parliament.

7.(C) From the voter's perspective, parliament appears less successful. The elected Council of Representatives, in particular, has been subjected to stinging public criticism from all quarters for wasting its time and energy on less-than-serious topics. For example, as the first tremors of the global financial crisis were felt here, MPs rushed to condemn a scheduled performance by Lebanese pop diva Haifa Wehebe, debated the harmful influence of witchcraft, and vowed to ban both pork and alcohol. Sectarian squabbles between Sunni and Shia MPs also consumed much of the past year. Shouting matches and walkouts paralyzed the lower house for several weeks. Wifaq MPs have complained to poloffs that even when they try to focus on those issues that matter to their constituents (naturalization of Sunni expats, housing, unemployment), they have a difficult time explaining to the voter in the majlis how their efforts have improved his situation. Without a majority, Wifaq is often unable to produce tangible results, and the rejectionist Shia fringe uses that to portray Wifaq - and the parliament - as ineffective. ---------------------------- DOING WHAT A PARLIAMENT DOES ----------------------------

8.(C) Despite all this, there are signs that the parliament is learning how to behave as a genuinely representative body. Within the limited scope of their powers, elected MPs have shown a dogged determination to exercise an oversight role by insisting on questioning ministers in open session - though challenging the authority of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman is a red line no MP would dare cross. In one case, the Foreign Minister was questioned over a meeting with his then-Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni. In another, Wifaq's Ali Salman went toe-to-toe with Minister for Cabinet Affairs Ahmed bin Attiyatallah Al Khalifa, forcing him to admit that the government had grossly undercounted the population. A Shia minister received a censure over allegations of corruption. He was subsequently eased out of the ministry into a "without portfolio" role.

9.(C) Similarly, MPs fought for, and won, a government concession on the budget. When the proposed budget did not include a BD 50 million provision for "inflation relief" (essentially cash payments to low income families), MPs in the lower house insisted on its inclusion and sent an amended version up to the Shura Council. The Shura stripped the provision and returned the original budget back to the Council of Representatives. The Finance Committee, led by Wifaqi Abduljalil Khalil, built a consensus that crossed party and sectarian lines, and re-inserted the "inflation relief" provision. With six months having passed, and the budget stymied in parliament, the government faced a choice: convoke a National Assembly (both chambers sitting together for an up or down vote) to ram the budget through, or compromise. In the end, the King intervened to provide the BD 50 million, on the condition that MPs agreed to drop the provision from next year's budget. Khalil later told poloff, with barely-contained delight, that "we made them blink!" --------------- LOOKING FORWARD ---------------

10.(C) Aside from a few public statements encouraging Sunnis to work together in the 2010 election, MPs from the Sunni blocs have been tightlipped about their election plans so far. Wifaq MP Jasim Husain has said several times over the course of the past few months that he believes there will be changes in the makeup of the party in the next parliament. Saeed Al Majed, an advisor to Ali Salman, outlined many of those changes in a June meeting with poloff (reftel). Comments from these Wifaqi insiders indicate that Wifaq will stand fewer religious candidates in 2010, opting instead for more technocrats like Khalil and Husain. According to Al Majed, assuming the constituencies remain unchanged from 2006, Wifaq will win eighteen seats at most. ------- COMMENT ------- MANAMA 00000660 003 OF 003

11.(C) In broad terms, Bahrain's seven-year-long parliamentary experience has been successful. It has provided an open, albeit controlled, forum for the Shia opposition to press its demands and engage with the government on controversial issues. Wifaq's 2005 decision to enter the political arena, and its stated commitment to participate in the 2010 election, is a noteworthy achievement.

12.(C) On a more practical level, there are positive signs that the process is maturing, but there is clearly much room for improvement. Winning inclusion of the "inflation relief" provision marked the first time the elected, lower house had managed to force the government's hand on a high-profile issue. It remains to be seen whether elected MPs, so often bitterly divided along sectarian lines, learned from that process how to work effectively across the aisle. So far, those divisions have generally prevented, particularly the Wifaqis, from delivering on their constituents' demands. Should the makeup of the 2010 parliament shift more toward technocrats and away from Islamists, we might expect a more professional tone of debate. Islamists will, however, likely continue to dominate the elected chamber. ERELI

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