ELECTION IN BAHRAIN AN IMPORTANT STEP TOWARD DEMOCRACY

Bob Tippee

An election important to the oil and gas industry took place Oct. 24.

For the first time in 27 years, citizens of Bahrain voted to choose 37 members of the legislative House of Deputies. Three other candidates faced no opposition.

Bahrain thus moved to become the second Arab state on the Persian Gulf currently to have a directly elected legislature. The other is Kuwait.

Bahrain's election follows a popular referendum held Feb. 14, 2001, in which voters overwhelmingly supported efforts by the hereditary ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to make the country a constitutional monarchy. Bahrain thus became a kingdom last February.

Among the gulf Arab states, any move toward democracy is significant.

Political traditions in the world's most important oil-producing region remain anchored to tribal autocracy and Muslim law. The creaky system increasingly strains under the weight of ancient disputes within Islam and under pressures—both cultural and economic—for modernization.

Among options available to governments facing consequent instability, democratization is surely the most sound. Yet authority founded in force and money seldom yields easily to consensus of the governed.

That's why legislative elections in Kuwait and, now, Bahrain are important. They're signs of hope in a region that needs them. Rapidly modernizing Qatar is considering a similar move.

In neither Bahrain nor Kuwait have elections proceeded without controversy.

Four opposition groups in Bahrain, led by the Islamic National Wetaq Society, boycotted the Oct. 24 election. Representing the kingdom's Shia majority, the groups said democratic reforms by the Sunni leadership didn't go far enough.

Still, more than half of Bahrain's 243,000 registered voters—men and women—are reported to have cast votes.

In Kuwait, an interesting and unsettled dispute concerns women's suffrage.

The emir, Sheikh Jaber Ali Ahmad Al Sabah, in May 1999 decreed that women be granted full political rights. The Majlis al-'Umma (National Assembly)—members of which are elected by the all-male 14% of Kuwaiti citizens now eligible to vote—rejected the initiative.

So democracy isn't exactly overwhelming the gulf Arab states. Its early manifestations, however, are worth celebrating.

(Online Oct. 25, 2002; author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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