On Nov. 29, Bahrain concluded its first full legislative election since the Persian Gulf kingdom’s popular uprising began in February 2011. The main controversy both before and after the vote has turned on the question of participation by the main opposition Shiite bloc al-Wefaq, whose 18 members of parliament resigned en masse from the 40-seat lower house in the early days of the uprising over the state’s deadly response to mass demonstrations. The group has remained on the political sidelines ever since, helping to organize a continuing if steadily weakening protest movement. In the end, al-Wefaq opted to continue its electoral boycott, having secured no meaningful political concessions to offer its increasingly disillusioned constituents as justification for rejoining what remains in any case a largely impotent parliament. Thus loath to return to the status quo ante after nearly four years of bitter struggle, al-Wefaq’s decision to abstain from the 2014 vote was made difficult only by concerted governmental (as well as Western diplomatic) pressure, including the threat of wholesale dissolution stemming from an ongoing court case brought by the Minister of Justice Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa.
The boycott, which was joined by three other opposition societies, left the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy scrambling to legitimize a process in which much of its majority-Shiite citizenry was unlikely to participate. The primary point of contention in post-electoral debate has been voter turnout. The government claims a full majority of registered Bahrainis, 51.5 percent, took part in the first round, while al-Wefaq puts the figure at no higher than 30 percent, claiming moreover that “80 percent of the voters were military and government personnel in the security and public sector.”
Lost in this debate, however, have been the actual results of the voting. Particularly noteworthy is that, al-Wefaq aside, Bahrainis elected only four candidates from any political society whatsoever, the other 36 incoming MPs being nominal “independents” more or less close to the government. The vote was therefore disastrous for Bahrain’s Sunni parties, including the most established societies al-Manbar al-Islami and al-Asalah, which represent Islamists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism, respectively. The former earned just a single seat, the latter two.