Bahrain - the Constitutional Experiment

Bahrain - the Constitutional Experiment

On December 16, 1971, the day Bahrain formally became independent of Britain (Bahrain technically gained its independence earlier in the year, on August 15), Shaykh Isa ibn Salman announced that the country would have a constitutional form of government. Six months later, he issued a decree providing for the election of representatives to a Constituent Assembly, charged with drafting and ratifying a constitution. The assembly was to consist of twenty-two elected delegates plus twenty additional members, including eight delegates appointed by the amir and the twelve members at the time of the Council of Ministers. The election, which was held in December 1972, was the first national election in Bahrain's history. The electorate was restricted, however, to native-born male citizens aged twenty years and older.

The relative openness of political debate permitted during the election campaign for the twenty-two contested Constituent Assembly seats encouraged individuals dissatisfied with the lack of democratic rights to demand more civil liberties. The primary focus of concern was the 1965 Law of Public Security, a series of three amiri decrees that authorized the ruler to maintain indefinitely a virtual state of emergency in order to protect national security from suspected foreign and domestic enemies. A group of mostly university-educated professionals, led by Abd al Aziz Shamlan, unsuccessfully petitioned the amir to rescind the law's harshest provisions, especially those pertaining to arrest and detention. They believed these measures had been used arbitrarily to silence dissent and peaceful opposition. Several women's groups also organized to protest the exclusion of women from the franchise. They presented a petition to the amir requesting support for extending voting rights to female citizens, but they failed to receive a positive response.

The Constituent Assembly was in session during most of 1973. It approved a constitution of 108 articles. The constitution, enacted by amiri decree in December 1973, provided for an advisory legislative body, the National Assembly, consisting of thirty members elected for four-year terms, plus all the members of the Council of Ministers whose terms were not fixed. The assembly was not empowered to initiate or enact legislation, but it was authorized to give advice and consent to laws proposed by the Council of Ministers. The assembly had the right to question individual ministers about policies and to withdraw confidence from any minister except the prime minister. The constitution stipulated that the amir could dissolve the assembly at his discretion, provided he make public the grounds for so doing. If the assembly were dissolved by decree, new elections had to take place within two months or the dissolution would be invalidated and the dismissed members reinstated.

Election for the National Assembly took place in December 1973, with the franchise restricted, as in the Constituent Assembly election, to male citizens. In theory, the thirty elected representatives were independents because political parties were not permitted; in practice, several of the assemblymen openly supported the positions and views of banned political organizations, including the National Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which espoused Marxist economic ideas. Consequently, two distinct coalitions emerged in the assembly: the People's Bloc, consisting of eight members who advocated the legalization of labor unions and the abolition of the 1965 security measures; and the Religious Bloc, consisting of six Shia members who supported labor reforms and various social restrictions, such as a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages. The majority of elected members--sixteen representatives-- comprised a heterogeneous group of independents whose individual positions shifted with the issues. The People's Bloc and the Religious Bloc tended to refer to the independents pejoratively as the Government Bloc because they usually tried to effect compromises between the ministers and their National Assembly critics.

Although the National Assembly lacked authority to prevent the government from enacting legislation that assembly members opposed, this situation did not impede policy debates. The unprecedented public debates attracted wide interest and, from the perspective of the regime, seemed to erode its legitimacy. During the winter and spring of 1975, a prolonged debate over a new state security decree proved especially troubling for the government. It appeared that most independents, as well as the Religious Bloc, supported the demand of the People's Bloc that the decree, issued in December 1974 without prior consultation with the assembly, be submitted to the legislature for ratification before its implementation. The issue was unresolved in May 1975, when the assembly recessed for the summer. In August, before the members reconvened, the amir dissolved the National Assembly, citing its inability to cooperate with the government. Although the constitution stipulated that new elections had to take place within two months of a dissolution, this did not occur. One year later, in August 1976, Shaykh Isa ibn Salman announced that the National Assembly would remain dissolved indefinitely.

Although there are no political parties through which citizens can express views, they can petition the amir for redress of grievances. The amir holds a regular majlis, or public meeting, at which he listens to views of citizens and accepts petitions for his intervention in dealing with the bureaucracy or some other problem. Officials of the islands' eleven municipalities follow the amir's example and hold local versions of the national majlis.

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