May 11, 2002


Bahrain Holds Landmark Elections (May 09, 2002,
Bahrain held its first elections for representative bodies in nearly 30 years Thursday, with men and women choosing members of municipal councils that are part of plans for radical political change in the Gulf country.

In a region led for the most part by autocrats, the scene of voters clamoring to get to the polls -- men and women standing in separate lines according to the country's conservative Islamic traditions -- was striking. Bahraini women were voting and running for office for the first time. [...]

``Let me in, let me in!'' shouted a bespectacled Maryam Mohammed Yousuf, 80, at a polling center in the capital Manama that failed to open on time. She stood in line leaning on a metal walking stick and a younger female relative, her wrinkled face just visible through her black chador. Most of the women voters wore the head-to-toe robe.

``As a loyal citizen I've been waiting for this opportunity all my life,'' Yousuf said after she was at last able to vote. ``This is a new birth for the nation, this is very, very, very, good.''

Thursday's leap toward democracy was being closely watched throughout the Gulf. Bahrain's eastern neighbor, Qatar, is the only other Gulf Arab state that allows women to run for office. Kuwait also holds elections, but bars women from running for office.

Bahrain's municipal elections were part of a process initiated by the king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, last year to transform the Gulf island nation from a traditional emirate where he held absolute power to a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament.

``This is a great first step, a real victory for the women,'' said Sabika al-Najjar, spokeswoman for the Bahrain Human Rights Society as she cast her vote in Arad. ``I can't wait for the next step.''

Soon after Sheik Hamad succeeded his late father as ruler of Bahrain, he commissioned a National Action Charter that provides for a parliament, an independent judiciary and a body to investigate complaints from the public. In mid-February, a year after the charter was approved in a nationwide vote, Sheik Hamed declared a constitutional monarchy and scheduled legislative elections for Oct. 24. The king, however, will appoint one of the houses of the bicameral legislature, allowing him to control lawmaking.

During the mid-1990s, Shiite Muslims, who form a slight majority in Bahrain, staged a violent campaign for political reform and restoration of parliament, triggering a government crackdown. More than 40 people were killed in the unrest. The Al Khalifa ruling family hails from the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam.

``This is the starting point for democracy,'' said former dissident and Shiite leader Mansoor al-Jamri after casting his vote Thursday in Saar more than six miles southwest of the capital.

Bahrain, which became independent from Britain in 1971, last held elections for a representative boy in 1973 when people voted for the National Assembly. That assembly was dissolved two years later.

This experiment in democratization has all the necessary ingredients for success : first, it's a former British possesssion; second, they're moving gradually, starting out by building institutions to undergird the new governing system; and, third, they're aiming at constitutional monarchy rather than
actual democracy. We wish them well. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 11, 2002 8:35 PM
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