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Bahrain’s democracy: Checks, balances and challenges

I write this article from Bahrain, where the University of Bahrain has convened the first version of the Bahrain International Symposium. It was held in the university’s campus in Al-Zallaq area, just outside Manama.
While the university had earlier organized various symposia on technical and scientific themes, the Bahrain International Symposium is one was the first on strictly internal issues. It was a sign of self-confidence that Bahrainis were willing to invite people from around the world to discuss with them those issues in an open and candid manner.
Experts from around the world were invited to examine, with their Bahraini counterparts, “the path of institutional developments and political reform in Bahrain, along with the challenges facing democratic transition and stability in light of the geopolitics of the region,” according to organizers.
Several hundred participants took part in the symposium’s deliberations. The discussions were organized in four main panels: Constitutional, judicial, economic and political. I was part of the Constitutional Panel, which discussed in depth issues at the heart of Bahrain’s National Dialogue, which had resumed earlier this year. Its lively deliberations are ongoing.
While Bahrainis will eventually decide their own course toward democracy, outside experts offered international and regional perspectives.
In the paper I presented before the Constitutional Panel, I noted that Bahrain’s constitutional arrangements have evolved considerably since 1973, but especially since 2000. For example, the 1973 Constitution did not have a direct reference to constitutional monarchy, but stipulated that Bahrain “shall have a democratic form of government.” On the other hand, the current 2002 Constitution is quite explicit that Bahrain is a “hereditary constitutional monarchy,” where “sovereignty rests with the people, the source of all powers.”
The Constitution offers a fairly clear bill of rights, and is quite detailed on the government’s duty to safeguard the basic human rights of citizens, which should be at the heart of any constitutional system.
The changes introduced in 2002 and more recently in 2012 have vested the Chamber of Deputies, the lower Parliament’s chamber that is elected directly by the people, with most powers, compared to the Consultative Council, the appointed upper chamber.
These written constitutional arrangements are quite advanced in a region where first principles of democracy are still under continuous debate and disagreement.
What is also remarkable is the degree of consensus in Bahrain about these provisions. Most of the new elements of the 2002 Constitution and its 2012 amendments were based on the National Charter of 2000, which was overwhelming approved by over 98 percent of Bahrainis taking part, according to official results at the time. It is rare to have such clear consensus anywhere in the world.
Despite such overwhelming consensus, there are some who advocate going back to square one and re-debate first principles. We saw that Bahrain’s written constitution is quite advanced and more than sufficient for the current stage in Bahrain’s political development.
According to members of Parliament taking part in the symposium, the Bahraini body politic has yet to fully digest and fully implement all the amendments passed in 2012. It would therefore be of little use to spend unnecessary energy on attempts to tweak the text or further amend it. A constitutional system has to be stable; continuously amending it could be divisive and destabilizing.
What is more important, in my view, is to continue to develop the tools necessary to put into effect all the checks and balances that the Constitution stipulates. Those checks and balances are what make Bahrain’s constitutional arrangements truly democratic. Those checks and balances include:
The Constitutional Court, which is essential for judicial review; i.e., to make sure that laws and regulations are consistent with the Constitution. The court was part of the innovations of the National Charter of 2000.
Independent judges to apply the laws of the land independently without interference from the executive branch.
Free Expression, to openly express views of the people and aid the government in canvassing their views on its actions. Of course, with freedom comes responsibility, as defined by the law, but within constitutional bounds and under judicial oversight.
Rule of law: It is not enough to have laws on the books, but citizens and residents need to experience equality before the law, and enjoy freedom from arbitrary treatment.
Economic and financial integrity: To energize the electorate, and encourage ownership of the spirit of the Constitution, there needs to be a transparent, consistent, and open economic environment, with equal opportunity for all, free of corruption and under the financial oversight by the Parliament.
In the final analysis, however, the role of the king is paramount, as the final arbiter of authority. He provides a formidable check against any weakening or challenge to constitutional arrangements.
While Bahrainis debate the path they will chart for the future, it is important to be aware of the real challenges facing Bahrain’s democracy. Those challenges include spillovers from regional conflicts, but especially Iran’s designs on Bahrain’s stability, and its repeated attempts to derail Bahrain’s dialogue. I shall turn to these challenges in future occasions.

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