Cooking up falsehoods in Bahrain's 'electoral kitchen'

A secretive pro-government group is allegedly waging a campaign through the local newspaper against the opposition.

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MANAMA // Politics in Bahrain is an often tempestuous affair, with serious debate about governance regularly spilling over into sharp-edged rumour and innuendo. The latest case in point is an accusation by opposition groups that a secretive cabal of pro-government supporters is waging a media campaign to discredit them in the run-up to elections scheduled for later this year.

The allegation has been hotly denied by government allies. Still, Sheikh Ali Salman, the secretary general of Al Wefaq, the largest Shiite opposition bloc in parliament, was only the latest government critic to allege that a group of unnamed individuals has been cooking up falsehoods about the party and disseminating them in recent months in the local newspaper, Al Watan. At a news conference over the weekend, Sheikh Salman said the group - which has been labelled as the electoral kitchen - was to blame for the publication of five articles each day unfairly attacking the opposition.

Sheikh Salman, the head of Al Wefaq's 17-member parliamentary bloc, offered no proof for the existence of such a group, let alone named any of its members. What he offered as evidence instead is what he characterised as Al Watan's disproportionate attention to the opposition at the expense of what he deemed more newsworthy events. "Even when the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza was attacked, Israeli crimes took second place and the newspaper continued to focus on Al Wefaq, which raises the question if such actions are opinion based or politically driven", he said.

Last week, Ebrahim Sharif, leader of the leftist pan-Arab Democratic Action Society, or Waad, charged that the newspaper had falsely reported a secret political deal between his group and Al Wefaq. Under the purported agreement, three Waad candidates had agreed to support an Islamist agenda in exchange for Al Wefaq's support. This rumour-mongering and mudslinging, Mr Sharif said, had one purpose: "We are fully aware that the electoral kitchen is feverishly working to misinform the public and trying to turn us - meaning the coalition - against each other. They are anxious because of the possibility that Waad and other opposition groups could make gains in their electoral strongholds, so they are not hesitating to fabricate lies and use any tactic to prevent that from happening".

Hasan al Dosari, an independent member of the 40-seat parliament, says the opposition's allegations are baseless. "The opposition has the largest bloc inside the parliament and if their claims of vote manipulation were true their bloc would not be as large. They ... have their own 'electoral kitchen' so why the uproar? Governments have the right to defend their interests," Mr al Dosari said. While describing it as "unlikely" that official funds were being used to discredit the opposition or to provide campaign expertise to friendly candidates, Mr Dosari said the government "has the right to support the candidates that support its programs and vision".

The opposition's accusation that there are shadowy forces keen on sowing division in their ranks may in part be a tactic aimed at diverting attention from fierce internal wrangling over parliamentary seats and a unified candidate's list. That struggle, even without any alleged outside impetus, could succeed in fracturing the opposition, some Bahraini political figures believe. Hassan al Aali, one opposition leader and candidate in the upcoming elections, said the opposition must overcome both internal and external forces dividing it.

"Government intervention in elections is a reality in many countries around the world. That does not make it right, but we as an opposition need to adopt a unified strategy that deals with that reality and rise above the minor differences we have if we are to prevail," said Mr Aali, secretary general of the leftist National Democratic Assembly.