Dirty tricks become more common as Bahrain’s election campaigns heat up

October 16, 2010
By

Ripped up poster

Dirty tactics, the dark underside of nearly every election in the world, started in Bahrain when the country recovered its parliament after a three-decade constitutional hiatus and dozens of men and women engaged in a tough competition for 40 seats in the lower chamber.

However, eight years later, and as the date for country’s parliamentary and municipal election inexorably nears, candidates are claiming that subtle and overt dirty tricks are becoming more frequent and more varied.

Many said that they had to deal with an onslaught of nefarious tricks and misinformation drives designed to discredit them or to win over vulnerable voters illegally. The ease of disseminating misinformation through SMS messages and social networks and the growing needs of susceptible voters meant that dirty tricks have become nastier and more prevalent.

“My mother told me not to run,” answered Ali Matar, the 2002-2006 lawmaker candidly answered when he was asked about the reason he did not wish to run again in 2006 or 2010. “She believed that neither the family nor I should go through any more dirty tricks to bar me from reaching the lower chamber,” the Islamist figure said in his soft voice, flashing into a large smile.

The bitter complaints made by Ali’s mother in 2002 after her son, a teacher of Arabic and an imam at one of Manama’s largest mosques, carried his constituency in the elections would pale in comparison with what happened to candidates in 2006 and in 2010. Dirty tactics today seem an integral part of the campaigning trail and candidates should be able to accommodate them as inevitable.

When Fawzia Zainal, the head of production at Bahrain Television, announced that she would be running in 2006, she knew she was courting trouble in an area where conservatives were used to having their way.

Even though she wore a hijab that covered her head and was invariably modestly dressed, Fawzia was a woman. As such, she should not have thought about venturing into an exclusively male field, conservative religious forces said and wanted her out. Intimidations included character-assassination short mobile messages, street rumours against her and the torching of her tent. Nobody was ever arrested or charged in any of the abuses.

Another woman subjected to nasty rumours and campaign banner ripping in 2006 was Muneera Fakhroo, a lecturer at the University of Bahrain and a social activist. She had two faults: she was a woman running in a male bastion and she was a liberal figure in a conservative constituency.

Short messages doubted her religious commitment and questioned her integrity. Many of her political banners were ripped up and her pictures were often defaced. But Muneera, supported by friends and sympathizers refused to be intimidated and refused to quit or to keep a low profile. She was tired of dirty politics, but she went on. She eventually lost the battle for the constituency seat, but not before forcing a second round that saw her garner impressive media and popular support.

Today, Muneera believes that the momentum she gathered four years ago should be the impetus she needs to reach the lower chamber and have one of the 40 seats. She also thinks that she has better chances.

Her powerful opponent of four years Dr Salah Ali, the leader of the Islamic Menbar, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is not seeking a new mandate. She is a well-known figure with a lot of backing from sympathizers, even though many are not casting ballots in her constituency. “I enjoy today greater support than I had in 2006,” she told Gulf News. “I am also better prepared to deal with the situations and to meet requirements than I was four years ago,” she said, displaying an air of assured self-confidence.

Yet, dirty tactics have resumed, unabated, from where they left off in 2006.

Many of her orange posters in Isa Town were ripped up or thrown on the grounds when size allowed it. Her motto “Enough corruption” prompted the local municipality to remove some of her posters, and she took the matter to the court. She won the case, but the municipality appealed. Muneera again refused to be knocked out and her tenacity paid off. A higher court allowed her to keep her motto and posters.

Other candidates whose posters were defaced, removed or ripped up did not go to courts. They complained to their constituents under large tents. They contacted the media. But none of them could point fingers or name suspects. Suspicions? Yes, but no names could be uttered for lack of evidence. For most of the victims, they had to opt for inevitable fatalism and resilient fortitude.

“I cannot point my finger at anyone, and especially the people of my constituency,” Ahmad Al Mannai, a candidate from the sixth constituency of the Capital Governorate, said after his posters were damaged. “There is no way it could be any of the candidates running against me because there is deep trust and old brotherhood between us. There is honest competition and none of the competitors would stoop so low as to engage in despicable acts,” he said.

Al Mannai, expectedly, did not file a suit in the police station. Fatalism and resilience. “I might never know who is behind it, and I have to move ahead. It is important that we keep up our relations and preserve our social fabric. We should hate to have a repeat of the ugly situation in Iraq, for instance,” he said.

Four days earlier, large posters carrying the smiling pictures of incumbent lawmaker Khalil Marzooq and municipal councilor Majeed Milad, both representing Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest society, were targeted.

Late in the night or at dawn, some of the banners were removed and others were painted over. Nobody knows whether it was competition rivalry, an act of jealousy or an anti-Al Wefaq statement. Nobody seemed to care, either. No-one was named or accused and no case was filed.

Adnan Al Malki, a parliament candidate running in the third constituency of the Central Governorate, did file a case with the police after his car was damaged.

“I was going to take my car in the morning when I saw the front shield damaged and noticed there were scratches all over the vehicle,” he said. “There was a stone next to the car and we believe it was used by the assailant or assailants. I do not know who is behind this despicable act and I hope that the police will identify him or them.”

Al Malki said that he had been subjected to pressure and intimidation since he announced that he would be contesting in the elections, but refused to divulge names.

“I am running because the people in my constituency have requested me to seek a parliament seat and convey their concerns and aspirations. I will go on despite the bullying,” he said.

For Abdul Husain Al Qassab, the damage hit his two cars. “On Thursday morning I went to the Budaya police station to report the vandalism on my car. And I returned in the evening after my second car was set ablaze,” said the municipality hopeful in the Northern Governorate. “Around 70 per cent of my posters have been either ripped up, torn or defaced. I do not know who is behind it, but I do know it is related to my determination to run in the elections. It is getting insane. People need to review their actions and comply with moral values and ethics,” he said.

However, beyond the wild spread of defamatory remarks and the increasing vandalism of banners, the phenomenon of blatant involvement of religious figures in campaigning and the misuse of religious facilities has been harshly criticized as dirty tactics to gain often undeserved political mileage.

According to the elections laws, the ban on using religion is clear and obvious.

Yet, some candidates who are religious figures and lead prayers on Friday and give sermons to hundreds of worshippers, choose to ignore the laws and continue to use the mosque tribune.

Under the laws, they are supposed to pull out of the imamship circuit and refrain from giving sermons until after the final results are announced. However, they do not seem inclined to let go of a golden opportunity to strengthen their religious aura and address hundreds of people and engage, be it subtly or overtly, in self-serving propaganda.

Some candidates are keen on appearing alongside religious figures or on inviting them to their elections tents. The religious leaders are naturally given a place of prominence and are treated with the highest regard as they show their support to the host candidate.

“This is crazy. Does this mean that the candidate, if he ever wins, will also take the religious figures with him to the parliament? We are baffled by the extent to which some candidates are ready to go to ensure they are elected regardless of their competence and worth,” Sawsan Al Shaer, a columnist, wrote.

“The use of public figures for the opening of a candidate’s tent is an act that is familiar, not only in Bahrain, but in every place where there are elections. Every community has its attractive personalities. Candidates in the United States use film and television stars, for example. Others resort to famous players. We have in Bahrain our own public figures and stars who could be hosted in the opening of elections headquarters and provide support for the candidate. However, a man of religion should not be among them and should remain above such practices and not be used to attract people. Using him to lure people would impinge not on his own status, but on the heavenly religion he represents,” she wrote on Thursday.

At one time, the authorities overseeing the elections had to call to order one candidate for using a religious facility to promote himself. Some imams made it clear that religious integrity meant that voters should cast their ballots only in favour of specific societies.

Yet, for most candidates, the greatest threat to the integrity of elections is not abuses and violations in the name of religion, but the tendency to buy off vulnerable voters.

Ahmad is so pleased with his new mobile that he takes it with him to the mosque and carefully places it on the praying mat in front of him for everyone to see. The mobile has suddenly become an extension of his character.

“I got it from one of the candidates running in our constituency,” he said to a group of people who go to the same mosque. “He brought my family three mobiles, two air conditioners and one cooker. His only wish? That we vote for him on October 23,” he said.

The case of Ahmad’s family is not an extraordinary exception. In some areas, where buyers are economically vulnerable, it is becoming a rule.

One voter, seemingly wary of people knocking on his door to ask him to support candidates running in his constituency, put out a notice that read: “To all candidates: We want three split units, three LED television sets, two window ACs, one tall freezer. They must all be of good quality. We also want enough rice, oil, sugar, tea, coffee and milk for six months. Should you give us the above items, we will vote for you. Otherwise, please save your time and ours. By the way, municipal candidates are required to provide only half of this quantity.”

Several religious figures insisted that giving gifts to potential voters ahead of the elections was banned religiously and both the candidates and the voters should avoid it, regardless of the excuses and reasons put forth.

A debate has been raging in Bahrain whether the household items were a gift that should be accepted or a corruption case that should be resisted.

“There is no ambiguity about it,” Fareed Gjazi, a lawyer and member of the 2002-2006 parliament, said. “This is corruption and should not be condoned. Those who talk about helping neighbours in need should defer their assistance until after the elections.”

For Bahraini citizen Khalid Qambar, the use of gifts to get the votes of vulnerable people turns the democracy exercise from intelligence and brains to greed and food.

Abdullah Abdul Rahman, a Bahraini national, said that people should not rush into condemning such acts of generosity.

“If the gifts are paid for by the candidate and are for the residents of his constituency, why should we look at them as a form of bribery? Let the needy people benefit. It is better for them to take the gifts because they might never see again the candidate they voted in.”

         

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About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Career
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
Education
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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