Since he succeeded as head of state in 1999, Sheikh Hamad has initiated wide ranging political reforms scrapping the restrictive state security laws, giving women the right to vote, freeing all political prisoners and holding parliamentary elections. The first poll was held in 2002, with MPs serving four year terms; the second parliamentary election took place on 25 November 2006.
The reforms are based on the National Action Charter, a package of political changes that was endorsed by the people of Bahrain on February 14, 2001, in a popular referendum that saw a 98.4% vote in favour. Among other issues, the referendum paved the way for national elections and for the country to become a constitutional monarchy, changing the country's official name from the State of Bahrain to the Kingdom of Bahrain (a change which took effect in February 2002). Parliamentary elections took place on 26 October 2002 with the new legislature, the National Assembly, beginning work the following month.
The opposition led by Islamic parties boycotted the 2002 election in protest at the bicameral nature of the parliament, because the appointed upper chamber, the Shura Council, has the power to veto legislation. Shura members have responded by pointing out that an appointed upper chamber is a feature of long established democracies such as the United Kingdom and Canada.
However, the principle behind the Al Wefaq's boycott - that only elected MPs should have the right to legislate - was undermined when, in response to proposed changes to the family law to give women more rights, Al Wefaq stated that no one except religious leaders had the authority to amend the law because MPs could 'misinterpret the word of God'.
Democratisation has greatly enhanced clerical influence, through the ability of religious leaders to deliver the votes of their congregations to candidates. Sheikh Abdullah Al Ghraifi, the deputy head of the Islamic Scholars Council, gave a clear warning of the clerics' intent: "We have at our disposition 150,000 votes that we will forward to the MPs, and I hope that they understand this message clearly." Over the showdown with the government and women's rights activists on the introduction of stronger legal rights for women, clerics have taken a lead in mobilising the opposition, and threatened to instruct their supporters to vote against MPs that support women's rights.
The opening up of politics has seen big gains for both Shī´a and Sunnī Islamic parties in elections, which has given them a parliamentary platform to pursue their policies. This has meant that what are termed "morality issues" have moved further up the political agenda with parties launching campaigns to impose bans on female mannequins displaying lingerie in shop windows, sorcery and the hanging of underwear on washing lines. Analysts of democratisation in the Middle East cite the Islamic parties' references to respect for human rights in their justification for these programmes as evidence that these groups can serve as a progressive force in the region.
Bahraini liberals have responded to the growing power of religious extremist parties by organising themselves to campaign through civil society in order to defend basic personal freedoms from being legislated away. In November 2005, al Muntada, a grouping of liberal academics, launched "We Have A Right", a campaign to explain to the public why personal freedoms matter and why they need to be defended.
Both Sunnī and Shī´a Islamic parties suffered a setback in March 2006 when twenty municipal councillors, most of whom represented religious extremist parties, went missing in Bangkok on an unscheduled stop over when returning from a conference in Malaysia After the missing councillors eventually arrived in Bahrain they defended their Bangkok stay, telling journalists it was a "fact-finding mission", explaining: "We benefited a lot from the trip to Thailand because we saw how they managed their transport, landscaping and roads."
Women's political rights in Bahrain saw an important step forward when women were granted the right to vote and stand in national elections for the first time in 2002's election. However, no women were elected to office in that year’s polls and instead Shī´a and Sunnī Islamic parties dominated the election, collectively winning a majority of seats. In response to the failure of women candidates, six were appointed to the Shura Council, which also includes representatives of the Kingdom’s indigenous Jewish and Christian communities. The country's first female cabinet minister was appointed in 2004 when Dr. Nada Haffadh became Minister of Health, while the quasi-governmental women's group, the Supreme Council for Women has been training female candidates to take part in 2006's general election.
The King recently created the Supreme Judicial Council to regulate the country's courts and institutionalize the separation of the administrative and judicial branches of government.
Shia and Sunni Islamic parties have both criticised the government over the composition of the appointed Shura Council, after it was given a strongly liberal majority, with Al Meethaq being the biggest group in the chamber. Critics allege that the government is seeking to use the Shura Council as a liberal bullwark to prevent clerical domination of politics.
Dominated by Islamic and tribal MPs, liberals have criticised the lower house for trying to impose a restrictive social agenda and curtailing freedoms. Those MPs who do not have an Islamic ideological agenda have been criticised for tending to approach politics not as a way of promoting principles, but as a means of securing government jobs and investment in their constituencies. The only voices that regularly speak in favour of human rights and democratic values in the lower house are the former communists of the Democratic Bloc and the secular Economists Bloc.
Anti-government factions state that the five municipal councils elected in 2002 do not have enough powers. Councillors of Islamic parties have repeatedly complained that their policies on such issues as the introduction of racial segregation and lingerie mannequins are being frustrated by lack of cooperation from central government. This has encouraged councillors to use at times innovative methods to push forward their policies. In January 2006, Dr Salah Al Jowder, an Asalah councillor in Muharraq discussed how the municipality would enforce a decree that would stipulate that all new buildings be fitted with one-way windows so that passers-by would be unable to see residents within their homes (after concerns were raised about peeping toms). Dr Al Jowder explained that the municipalities would enforce the measure by using their control over the electricity supply: "We can't stop someone from building if they do not promise to install one-way windows. But we can make them put in one-way windows if they want permission to install electricity."
In October 2005, Al Wefaq and the former Maoist National Democratic Action agreed to register under the new Political Societies Law, but continue to object to it on the grounds that it prevented parties receiving foreign funding. The move has been widely seen as indicating that the two parties will take part in 2006's general election, particularly as they have faced considerable pressure from party members to participate. In fact once the law came into effect, Al Wefaq reversed its previous opposition and described it as a 'big milestone for Bahrain'
In an effort to revitalise the Left in advance of the September 2006 general election, leading lawyer, Abdullah Hashem launched the National Justice Movement in March 2006. While Bahrain's liberals have sought to use the opening of civil society to campaign against the domination of Islamic parties in politics, with a campaign to protect personal freedoms, We Have A Right, led by the civic group, Al Muntada.
Bahrain's five governorates are administered by the Minister of State for Municipalities and the Environment in conjunction with each Governorate's Governor. A complex system of courts, based on diverse legal sources, including Sunni and Shi'a Sharia (religious law), tribal law, and other civil codes and regulation, was created with the help of British advisers in the early 20th century. This judiciary administers the legal code and reviews laws to ensure their constitutionality.
Both the United Kingdom and Canada have the same form of bicameral parliamentary system with an elected lower chambers and appointed upper chambers, however elected members of the government are accountable to the electorate for those nominated to the upper house.
Though juxtaposed between much larger neighbors, the tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain does not face any immediate threats from foreign nations. Likewise, it is not currently involved in any international disputes. In the recent past, however, relations between Bahrain and two other Gulf states – Iran and Qatar – were less than amicable. The government of Bahrain has made a concerted effort to improve relations with both. Relations with Iran were initially strained over Bahrain’s 1981 discovery of an Iranian-sponsored plot to stage a coup. Bahrain’s suspicion that Iran had also instigated domestic political unrest in the 1990s fueled the tension. Bahrain’s recent efforts to improve relations with Iran include encouraging trade between the respective nations, as well as promoting maritime security cooperation. Hostile relations between Bahrain and Qatar stemmed from a longstanding territorial dispute. On March 16, 2001, an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling facilitated a peaceful settlement of the matter. The ICJ granted sovereignty over the Hawar Islands and Qit’at Jaradah to Bahrain and sovereignty over Zubarah (part of the Qatar Peninsula), Janan Island and Fasht ad Dibal to Qatar.
Bahrain has a very low crime rate.
The government of Bahrain does not face any immediate threats from individuals or organizations that seek to undermine its sovereignty. In the past, however, it has been forced to contend with political uprisings. The government foiled an attempted coup in 1981. The disaffection of Bahrain’s Shi’a majority precipitated a series of violent incidents in the 1990s. Legislative reforms aimed at addressing the estranged population’s underlying grievances initially held the violence in check. In 1996 tensions resurfaced, however, and a number of hotel and restaurant bombings resulted in numerous casualties. The government subsequently arrested over 1,000 individuals for their alleged participation in the incidents and proceeded to hold them without trial.
The political situation in Bahrain appears to have stabilized. Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa assumed the throne in March 1999 upon the death of his father, Shaikh Isa bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain since 1961. He continued to implement democratic reforms, including the transformation of Bahrain from a hereditary emirate to a constitutional monarchy, and in so doing changed his status from emir to king. He also pardoned all political prisoners and detainees, including those who had been arrested for their unsubstantiated participation in the 1996 bombings as well as abolishing the State Security Law and the State Security Court, which had permitted the government to detain individuals without trial for up to 3 years. Because of the changes that the King Khalifa has implemented during his reign, Bahrain has not experienced a resurgence of political violence.
The government of Bahrain has actively cooperated with the international community in general and the United States in particular to combat global terrorism. Basing and extensive over flight clearances that it has granted U.S. military aircraft contributed to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom. The government of Bahrain has cooperated closely on criminal investigations linked to terrorism. Likewise, it has taken steps to prevent terrorist organizations from using the nation’s well-developed financial system. Not all of Bahrain’s citizens have applauded their government’s efforts, however, particular vis-à-vis its support for U.S. initiatives. Several anti-American demonstrations took place in 2002, during one of which the U.S. embassy was attacked with firebombs, and again at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
In 2005, Bahrain, as one of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), agreed to intensify coordination in the fight against terrorism in response to instability in the region. They called for a clear definition of terrorism so that it could be differentiated from other criminal activities or activities such as rightful struggles against foreign occupation for example.