Divided Islamists face poll erosion in Bahrain

Infighting and greater government support for independents are expected to result in big electoral losses for Bahrain's conservative Sunnis.

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MANAMA // Sunni Islamists could take a beating in this month's parliamentary election because they have been fighting among themselves and the government is providing greater support for independents, opposition politicians say.

"These people will lose about half of their MPs. There's a significant anti-incumbent, anti-Islamist feeling among the voters," said Ibrahim Sharif, a candidate who leads a liberal opposition group called the National Democratic Action Society.

Abdul Nabi Salman, a former parliamentarian and campaign organiser for a left-wing opposition group, the Democratic Progressive Tribune, said the Salafis and the Muslim Brothers "will lose votes to those who are independent, for sure".

Mr Salman said the Sunni Islamists, who are seen as being close to the government, have pushed for a ban on alcohol, which officials see as a threat to the country's economy. He said in the last parliament they supported an investigation into the appropriation of state land by private individuals, a sensitive issue that has been linked to members of the royal family.

Abduljalil Khalil Ebrahim, a member of the last parliament for the Shiite Islamist society Al Wefaq, and the chairman of the committee that investigated the land issue, said: "We have noticed there is a lot of pressure on Salafis who supported us in this report." He believes pro-government candidates are contesting seats held by Sunni Islamists "just to punish them for supporting Al Wefaq in this report".

The minister of justice and Islamic affairs, Sheikh Khaled bin Ali al Khalifa, recently said there is "no way" that the government supports candidates. "If any candidate wants to come for government back-up, the government refuses," he said.

Bahrain's largest Salafi society, Al Asalah, held eight of 40 seats in the last parliament, and the Al Menbar National Islamic Society, which is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology, had seven. The two societies used the conservative Sunni vote in 2006 by not competing against each other in all but one of the 15 districts in which they stood.

"Their actions [in this campaign] show there is no intention to reach co-operation," said Adel al Maawdah, a candidate for Al Asalah. "It was not clever. They feel that they are going to lose a lot in other areas, so they want to grasp anything they can."

Mr al Maawdah said Al Menbar is contesting four seats that were held by the Salafis. He said Al Asalah has not put any candidates in districts that were won by its main Sunni rival, but it is supporting independent candidates in some areas. He said there is still a "slight" chance the societies could co-operate and "we are ready for the two scenarios."

"Officially, some independents are not going under the banner of Salafis, but they are fully supported," said Abdulrahman al Janahi, a member of Al Menbar. "This time there is no agreement."

The Salafis say the rift began when the Muslim Brothers put candidates in constituencies the Salafis held, but Mr al Janahi argued that the electoral pact finished when Al Asalah's leader, Ghanim al Buainain, announced that his group wants more seats and does not have to "give anything" to Al Menbar at the beginning of the campaign.

"Everybody wants to take a bigger piece of the cake," Mr al Janahi said.

Mr al Maawdah said in the past that the government "cared a lot" about the alliance between the two parties, but now "I don't think it is as keen as before". He said officials do not give any practical support, but "you can feel it".

"Nobody could deny that the government is a key player, and it wouldn't sit on the lines," Mr al Janahi said. He believes the royal family supports preferred candidates by making its preference known in the country's majlises.

The opposition believes official support goes much further than a simple endorsement. Mr Sharif and Mr Salman said the government funds certain candidates, orders the country's security services to vote for its supporters and moves votes between polling stations to tightly fought constituencies.

The government argues that there is no proof of these allegations. It says the judiciary and independent societies monitor the voting stations and even if the security forces are told to vote for a candidate, the anonymous voting procedure is impossible to monitor. "They want to reduce the religious sentiment in the parliament, so to reduce it they are encouraging so-called independent liberals," Mr Sharif said.

"They are liberal in terms of giving you the right to drink and take a girlfriend, but not in giving you the right to demonstrate against the government or call for significant changes in public policy. They are monarchists."

Othman Sharif al Rayes, an independent, said he lost to a candidate from Al Menbar in 2006, but he has a better chance this year because of the absence of a Sunni Islamist electoral pact. He said voters are turning to independents because the Islamists' focus on religious issues "made a crack in the unity of the country".

"I've found myself that I'm supported by the business sector and people in my constituency, not anybody else" Mr al Rayes said, adding that the government might prefer his "thinking" to other candidates.

Isa Kooheji, another independent, said unaffiliated candidates are playing a greater role because of the political societies' poor performance in parliament. "Candidates connected with political societies have to stick to their agendas, which might not be what the people want," he said.