Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy, with Sheikh Hamad bin ‘Isa Al Khalifa as king since 1999. Prior to that time, Bahrain had been an emirate with a parliament, though the parliament had been suspended since 1975. In 1992, the Emir established the Consultative Council as an advisory body to the Emir. The members of the Council, although appointed by the Emir, were chosen from among business, civic, and political leaders, including some members of the dissolved National Assembly. Upon his succession, Sheikh Hamad bin’Isa rescinded the emergency measures of 1975 and held a referendum on a new National Charter. Bahraini nationals, both men and women over the age of 21, were eligible to participate in the referendum. The voter turnout for the referendum was 90 percent, of which 98.4 percent voted to approve. The changes initiated by the National Charter were solidified in an amended constitution in 2002, which provided for elected municipal councils and a bicameral legislature, consisting of the Chamber of Deputies and the Consultative Council. Each chamber of the legislature has 40 members that serve four-year terms. While members of Council of Deputies are elected by popular vote, the King retains the power to appoint and dismiss members of the Consultative Council, dissolve the Council of Deputies and amend the Constitution.
Election Laws, Systems and Processes
Decree No. 14 of 2002 governs the electoral process. All Bahraini men and women over the age of 21 are allowed to vote, as are citizens of GCC countries resident in Bahrain and non-residents who own property in Bahrain. Bahrain is divided into five governorates, each of which has a ten-member municipal council popularly elected. Members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected in 40 separate electoral districts. The composition of these districts has resulted in charges of gerrymandering; the largest districts, mainly Shiite, contain over 12,000 people, while the smallest have only 500 voters. Election dates must be set 45 days in advance, while election reruns must be announced 30 days in advance. Before elections, a schedule of eligible voters is published for each district.
Elections are overseen by the Elections Committee, whose head is the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs. The Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs appoints a subcommittee of three members to oversee elections in each district. The chairmen of the subcommittees must be members of the judiciary. In addition to the three appointed members, each candidate running for office appoints a member to serve on the elections committee.
The last legislative and municipal elections in Bahrain took place on November 25, 2006, followed by a second round on December 2, 2006. These were the third public elections in Bahrain’s history, following those of 1973 and 2002. The 2002 elections were boycotted by political opposition groups, especially the powerful National Harmony Society (Shiite). The current elections witnessed the participation of all organized political groups, namely: The National Harmony Society, the Islamic Forum (Muslim brothers), the Islamic Authenticity Society (Fundamentalists), and the National Democratic Action Society (leftists and Arab nationalists). The total number of registered voters was 295,686, while the number of parliamentary candidates was 206 including 19 women, competing for 40 seats. . Forty election centers were established in the five governorates, in addition to 10 general election centers where registered voters may cast their votes that are later sorted and counted in their electoral districts.
In conducting the elections the government gave in to the demand of political societies that electronic voting not be used. Military and security personnel were allowed to vote. The government rejected the presence of international observers, but civil society associations, especially the Bahrain Transparency Society and the Human Rights Society, were allowed to monitor elections. A supreme election committee chaired by the minister of justice oversaw the electoral process. Intensive voting was noticed, especially by women. The participation rate in the parliamentary election was 69%, but before actual voting commenced, Mrs. Latifa Al-Qu'ud was declared uncontested winner, thereby becoming the first elected female parliament member in Bahrain and in the Gulf countries. Bahrainis living abroad cast their votes.
The first round witnessed the election of 29 deputies, while the remaining 11 deputies were elected in the second round. The National Harmony Society (Shiite opposition) won the largest block in the new parliament (17 seats). The Islamic Forum won 8 seats, the Authenticity Society won 5 seats, and independent candidates won 10 seats. The National Democratic Action Society did not win any seats. Islamists, both Shiite and Sunni, control an overwhelming majority in the new parliament (30 seats). However, the two Sunni societies are loyal to the government, rendering a balance of power in parliament of 22 against 18 in favor of the government.
King Hamad Ben Issa Al-Khalifa issued a royal decree renewing the membership of 25 council members and appointing 15 new members. The new consultative council is dominated by businessmen and technocrats. Women are heavily represented as ten of them were appointed to the council. Minorities were also represented: Mrs. Huda Nunu (a Jew) and Alice Sim'an (Christian). Mr. Ali Al-Saleh was appointed president of the consultative council.
The last municipal elections in Bahrain took place on November 25, 2006 followed by a second round on December 2, 2006. Out of a field of 165 candidates the National Harmony Society won 20 out of the 50 municipal seats. None of the five women municipal candidates was elected out of the field of 165 candidates. Participation was 61%, slightly less than for the concurrent legislative elections. The Municipal Elections Law, approved on February 13, 2002, gives the vote to every Bahraini man and women 21 years or older and also to citizens of other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council who own property in Bahrain. The first municipal elections under the 2002 constitution were conducted on May 9, 2002. Five political societies in Bahrain participated in the elections, but expressed 'great concern' over the distribution of the electoral departments. 306 candidates, including 31 women, competed for the 50 seats.
A two-day national referendum was held in Bahrain on 14 and 15 February 2001 to approve the National Action Charter put by the King of Bahrain Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah. 98.4% of voters voted in favor of the charter; which called for a constitutional monarchy, an independent judiciary and a bicameral legislature made-up of a lower house of elected representatives and an upper house of appointed legislators. The charter also gave equal rights to men and women, with all citizens having equal political rights and being entitled to elections and candidacy according to the law.