Rulers secure in 1st post-Spring votes
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The first elections since the Arab Spring uprisings will be more about holding back change than expanding political freedoms: voting in three Gulf nations that poses no threat to old-guard rulers or their efforts to unite against calls for fast-track reforms.
None of this month’s planned elections will even slightly loosen the hold of rulers - the central aim of the street protests that have toppled leaders from Tunisia to Egypt and threaten to do the same in Syria and Yemen.
Yet each of the voting rounds - a stopgap parliamentary election in violence-battered Bahrain and tightly controlled balloting in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - tells a different story about the upheavals and the chances for change among the region’s wealthiest and most entrenched royal houses and ruling families.
All three elections are bit players in the wider drama across the region. Nevertheless, any movement toward the ballot box takes on greater significance with the election process still unclear in Egypt and Tunisia, and Libya’s new leaders locked in fights with the remnants of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
In Bahrain, the special parliamentary election Saturday has the most at stake: 18 seats abandoned in a mass protest resignation by lawmakers from the country’s Shiite majority, who accuse the ruling Sunni dynasty of systematic discrimination such as gerrymandering voting districts to dilute Shiite power and blocking promotions to key military or government posts.
A pro-government outcome is almost certain after boycott calls by Shiite political groups. The expected snub will likely tighten the grip of the kingdom’s Sunni rulers, who so far have managed to ride out the Arab Spring’s longest unrest with the help of allies.
Neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have sent in an emergency military force to help safeguard Bahrain’s leaders. The West, too, has been careful not to jeopardize its strategic economic and military ties with Bahrain’s monarchy, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Riding out the tremors may come at a high price for Bahrain’s 200-year-old ruling dynasty. The vote, analysts say, may widen the divisions that led to near daily clashes that show no signs of easing.
Bahrain’s rulers have taken some steps at outreach, including U.S.-supported reconciliation talks in July, but they have failed to quell the opposition.
The planned Sept. 29 voting for municipal councils, however, will bring no cracks in the leadership’s absolute hold on power - or the Saudis’ self-appointed role as the heavyweight force trying to keep the Arab Spring from spreading too far.
A top Saudi goal is preserving the club of kings and sheiks in their Gulf backyard and farther afield in Morocco and Jordan, which have been asked to join the Gulf’s main political bloc.
The election comes after a nearly two-year delay that has angered rights activists. But even after the vote, the all-male councils - created in the country’s first election in 2005 - will still have little sway over political affairs.