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Bahrainis Get a Chance at Polls

Election for newly created parliament is seen as referendum on king's support for U.S.

October 23, 2002|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

MANAMA, Bahrain -- For an absolute monarch, Sheik Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa has been acting a lot like a U.S. president worried about an upcoming midterm congressional election.

The 52-year-old king of Bahrain, educated at U.S. and British military academies, has opted to do something that many Persian Gulf rulers find to be dangerous nonsense: share at least a modicum of political power with his people.

On Thursday, voters in this island nation of more than 600,000 residents will go to the polls to elect 40 members to a newly created parliament, the first such election since the king's late father disbanded the legislature in 1975 during a crackdown on dissent.

Khalifa, who succeeded his father in 1999, made a rare television address Monday night to list his achievements and urge -- almost plead with -- his subjects not to heed a call by Islamic groups to boycott the election.

"What shall fathers and mothers say to their children tomorrow if we boycott the future?" said the king.

Said one Bahraini intellectual of the speech, "The king looked nervous."

Though the election has been scheduled for months, the recent tension between President Bush and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has added a last-minute issue to an otherwise low-key campaign.

"This election can be seen as a referendum on the king's support for the U.S. as well as [on] the king himself," said Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista), an Arab American and Persian Gulf expert in Congress.

To Issa and other Western analysts, the election and aftermath will test whether a pro-Western leader in the region can move his country toward democracy without unleashing a whirlwind of anti-U.S. sentiment and empowering conservative Islamic activists.

The U.S. armed forces have had a foothold in Bahrain since World War II. The Navy's 5th Fleet is headquartered here, and military planes use the international airport as a regional hub. Loss of basing privileges could undercut American military influence in the region.

Islamic leaders have stepped up their criticism of the U.S. presence as part of their opposition to Bush's threat to use military force to topple Hussein. At an angry demonstration outside the United Nations building here, Islamic leaders called for the U.S. to leave Bahrain.

"The Islamists have been able to make gains [in Bahrain] because of the unpopularity of George Bush's war on terrorism," said Hugh Canavan, analyst with the London-based Gulf Center for Strategic Studies. "Bush's rhetoric is counterproductive in terms of spreading Western values through the region."

At a news conference Tuesday, the crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamed Khalifa, sought to downplay the idea that a low turnout in the election would be a vote of no confidence in his father. He noted that British Prime Minister Tony Blair came to power with the support of roughly 30% of all eligible voters.

"If we get anything over what Tony Blair got, I'll be happy," said the 33-year-old prince, who studied at Cambridge and Washington State universities.

The king's critics -- who are free to hold rallies and give interviews, unlike during the repressive days under his father -- say the venture into democracy is all for show. They note that the parliament disbanded in 1975 had greater power.

The promises of democracy are "written on the water," said Islamic political leader and boycott organizer Sheik Ali Salman, who predicts voter turnout will be as low as 30%.

Still, the Bahraini experience is seen by many as a milestone in the nascent effort to convince Gulf rulers to share power with their people.

Under the constitution adopted by Bahraini voters, the parliament's latitude will be limited. The king retains power to name all Cabinet ministers and veto all bills.

In addition, there will be a second legislature-like body whose members are named by the king. That body can block any bill from reaching the palace.

Officially, the king is neutral about the 170 candidates, including eight women.

But in last spring's municipal elections -- in which officials were elected to advise the government on issues such as potholes -- nearly half of the seats were won by members of the conservative Shiite sect, which is thought to oppose the king.

The royal family belongs to the Sunni sect. Shiites have been blamed by authorities for inciting political violence in the past, allegedly at the urging of forces in Iran.

To boost the chances of pro-monarch candidates -- and thwart the boycott -- the king has put on a burst of politicking that any U.S. political operative would admire.

Nearly each day brings a new initiative to improve the economy and standard of living in Bahrain: a housing development, better health clinics, rights for labor unions, higher wages for public employees, even a new home for the family of a 12-year-old girl whose disappearance has been the subject of heavy media coverage.

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