Bahraini activists take cue from Obama campaign

Political activists hope grass-roots networking similar to Barack Obama's US presidential bid can bring young Bahrainis out to vote.

MANAMA // Political activists are hoping the grassroots and web-based campaigning that helped Barack Obama win the US presidential election in 2008 will bring disenfranchised young Bahrainis out to vote. Bahraini activists from across the political spectrum were inspired by the use of social networking sites and on-the-ground campaigning that was the mainstay of the Obama campaign. They also took heart from the success of youth activists last year in neighbouring Kuwait who used similar tactics to secure seats for four women - the country's first female MPs - as well as seats for liberals and independents in face of the then Sunni-Islamist dominated parliament.

From calls to lower the voting age to 19 from 20 to demands for better education, employment and more civil rights, there seems to be a growing consensus among young people in Bahrain - where 65 per cent of the population is under 30 - on the changes they want to see their country make. Activists want to capitalise on this momentum to make Bahraini youth more politically engaged. "The marginalisation of issues affecting youth, such as unemployment, shortage of proper housing and discrimination coupled with the lack of achievements by the 2002 and 2006 parliaments are discouraging youth from turning out to vote," said Isa al Dirazi, vice president of the leftist Al Shabeeba Society (The Youth Society).

Al Shabeeba, which is an offshoot of the Marxists Bahraini Progressive Democratic Tribune (Al Minbar) party, and the largest of the liberal youth movements, is planning to launch a campaign by the end of the month to encourage young Bahrainis to vote. They will have until November -when Bahrain's third parliamentary elections in the past decade are held - to communicate their message. The campaign, titled "I am not sectarian", will focus on getting young people to vote for liberal candidates, regardless of their political party affiliation, with voters encouraged to make their choices based on the candidates' merits and policy ideas rather than their religious background, Mr al Dirazi said.

Al Minbar is fielding four candidates, while the largest of the leftist movements, Waad, is fielding three, including a woman. Other liberal and pan-Arab parties are also planning to run candidates in a push to break the Islamists' dominance in parliament. Mr al Dirazi said activists from his movement elicited a positive response to their efforts during recent student elections at the University of Bahrain and they decided to expand it to national politics.

He said four teams numbering around 50 people - accounting for a third of Al Shabeeba's members - would begin their campaigning at the end of the month and would run seminars, public-gatherings and artistic events, and conduct political research to drive their message home to young voters. Other groups are planning similar activities. Sayed Adnan Jalal, who heads the Bahrain Dialogue Society (Hewar), which educates young Bahrainis about democracy and promoting dialogue, said his group was planning to launch a summer campaign to encourage young voters.

"We are also continuing our efforts to get the voting age reduced to 19 in this election," he said. "Pressure by youth groups secured a reduction in voting age from 21 to 20 in 2006 and we hope to secure a further reduction this time." Mr Jalal said youth was "the foremost engine" of the elections. It was a point reiterated and elaborated on by Habib Marzooq, the head of the Bahrain Youth Center, which falls under the umbrella of the Shiite Islamic Al Wefaq.

"Youth have been a key component of the campaigns carried out in 2006 and in many instances they formed its backbone," he said. "Young people are also more into technology and the latest trends in it allowing them to play a bigger role in these campaigns". Mr Marzooq, like Mr Jalal and Mr al Dirazi, said the social networking website Facebook had proved effective in communicating with young Bahrainis. Each of the three groups the men belong to has a strong presence on the site, and two of the three use Twitter.

According to Mr Jalal, there are more than 150,000 users from Bahrain on Facebook, and more than 6,000 of them use his NGO's page. "All the recent campaigns have relied on the social networks and properly the biggest example of those campaigns is the one carried out to elect President Obama which had a profound impact on American youth," Mr Marzooq said. Mr Jalal said he expected dramatic changes to come out of November's elections, in large part because of new campaign tactics by political movements, but also because of general dissatisfaction.

"I expect the next elections to bring an abundance of surprises, particularly in terms of the rise and fall of particular political groups because of the swing in the mood of voters, who are seeking change and development," he said.