Manama // Bahrain's six key opposition parties met last Saturday and expressed grave concerns regarding the country's electoral system, which they called "discriminatory". "The meeting was an important opportunity for the six societies to express their various views on how to go about addressing the challenges facing us," Jalal Fairooz, an MP with the Shiite Islamic Al Wefaq party, said. "The time has come for the government to redraw the district lines and implement much needed changes after serious dialogue with the opposition."
Mr Fairooz added that Al Wefaq, which has 17 members in parliament, was involved in dialogue with senior officials in the government to address some of the concerns over districts. Sheikh al Mahfood warned that joint government and opposition failure to address the issues could send the country spiralling once more into sectarian unrest and violence, similar to that witnessed in past years. The concerns are not new and have been at the heart of opposition discontent since the 2006 election and its aftermath. Last week's opposition roundtable comes at a sensitive time: both the opposition and loyalist alliances face unprecedented internal turmoil.
Among the opposition - which is made up of Shiite Islamists, leftists, pan-Arabists and communists - the leftists plan to contest districts held by the Shiite Islamists, who, according to the leftists, have too frequently fallen into the trap of forcing parliamentary issues to be drawn along sectarian lines. Sunni Islamists from the Islamic Brotherhood and Salafist movement - both considered loyalists - are also facing off against each other, shedding understandings that held in the past two elections in what is shaping to be a hotly contested November poll. According to the participants in the opposition meeting, which is the first in a series expected over the coming weeks, the current makeup of voting districts is inflaming sectarianism and preventing democratic progress from being achieved.
The Northern Governorate, where about 40 per cent of the population lives and where many are Shiites, is at the heart of the controversy surrounding the voting districts. The opposition claims that in districts there and in others where Shiites or opposition supporters are in the majority, district lines had been drawn to favour loyalists. "The current setup of the electoral districts has maimed the democratic process and reinforced sectarianism during elections and inside the parliament," Sheikh Mohammed Ali al Mahfood, the secretary general of the Islamic Action Society (Amal), the second largest Shiite opposition grouping, said at the onset of the 3-hour discussion. Each of the six groups presented papers on where it stands on election reform.
The breakdown of the country's 40 electoral districts - spread over five governates from which the 40 members of parliament are elected - continues to be the most controversial issue. The number of voters in the districts varies greatly and many districts are drawn along sectarian lines. The loyalists insist that although some districts have fewer voters than others, the current distribution takes into account projected population growth and eliminates the need for redrawing them in the future.
But the opposition disagrees. "This is unacceptable. A system that guarantees the rights of today's voters and any future voters is fairer. You cannot take away the rights of today's voters based on what is projected decades from now," the deputy secretary general of Amal, Sheikh Abdullah Saleh said. "Any electoral system must provide equality, justice and a sense of partnership between the civic society and the government and the lack of these things will push people away. We cannot achieve a system that pleases all, but ... the current system is neither just nor fair".
His views were echoed by the secretary general of the leftist pan-Arab Democratic Action Society, or Waad, Ebrahim Sharif, who said district distribution was not only causing tension along sectarian lines but within the various sects themselves. "You cannot have a district where there are 5,000 voters and another where there are 15,000. A just electoral system is based on equality of votes. The average district should be around 7,500 voters based on the 2006 elections, but we have districts where there are only a 1,000 plus voters and others where there are more than 15,000 voters," he said.
"The difference is striking and the system does not reflect the true political makeup of society. "There were political powers that secured five per cent of the 2006 votes and did not win any parliamentary seats while others secured seven or eight per cent of the vote and gone to win seven to eight seats." He pointed out that in the Southern Governorate, where six of the 40 voting districts are, the total number of voters comes out to be around 15,000 in total while the first district in the Northern Governorate alone has 15,000 voters.
"Fifteen thousand voters from the Southern Governorate have six members of parliament while 15,000 voters from the Northern Governorate - which is mainly Shiite - have one member of parliament. The districts in the Southern Governorate are also favoured when compared to districts in the Muharraq Governorate. We have two districts in Muharraq where there are 10,000 voters each," Mr Sharif said. "The Southern Governorate and the two districts with 10,000 voters each in the Muharraq Governorate are both Sunni so the discrimination is carried out even within the sect itself and we have to combat discrimination regardless of sect because it is discrimination against citizens".
According to Mr Sharif, despite differences among the opposition on exactly how to redraw the voting districts to better represent Bahrainis, there is consensus regarding most of the reform issues on the table. These include allowing international and local election observers, which the government rejects; having an independent commission run and oversee the elections instead of a government-run body; and lowering the voting age to 18.
The opposition has also called for a fully elected National Assembly, which comprises two chambers - the lower-chamber parliament of 40 elected MPs and the upper chamber Shura of 40 members appointed by the king.