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Key issues 'are ignored by MPs'

WHEN Bahrainis went to the polls for Parliament elections almost four years ago, hopes were very high. Voting was their way of getting involved in the groundbreaking democratic reform and the polling stations were full of optimistic faces. The MPs were supposed to be their representatives, their voice in the legislature, but for many the experience has been disappointing.

One of the biggest problems has been a perceived imbalance in the chamber, largely because several large political societies boycotted the 2002 polls.

Parliament can only become truly representative if everyone pulls together to support it, say citizens.

Most still have hope and see the first Parliament as a lesson for the future, but a few feel they have been so let down that they won't even vote in the next election.

The GDN spoke to voters about the positive and negative experiences they have had.

Bahrain Women's Society Be Free president Dr Soroor Qarooni approached the last election with cautious optimism.

"I understood that it was a very new experience for the voters, the government and the MPs," she said.

"I knew it would be a great challenge, but from my point of view the Parliament hasn't achieved as much as I thought it would."

One of the problems was that voters and candidates largely concentrated on religious ideology, rather than plans for the nation's future.

"People, including myself, didn't have a clear picture of the individual candidates, their agenda or whether they were capable," noted Dr Qarooni.

"Candidates said a lot of good things, but when they went to Parliament we found that they hadn't been realistic."

They have also made their focus too narrow.

"MPs have been talking about issues more fundamental to religion than to the future of the people," she continued.

"We need real freedom, not an interpretation of religion, because everyone's interpretation of religion is different.

"There are groups in Bahrain who think they have the true religion and some have lots of followers.

"People are very cautious to say that they think they are wrong, because they do not want to be stamped anti-religious.

"These freedoms should be protected.

"Nobody has the right to attack others who do not think in the same way."

The MPs are not looking for long-term improvements, preferring vote-grabbing 'quick fixes'.

"The changes they are making aim to make people satisfied at that very moment, but they need to look at fundamental issues," observed Dr Qarooni.

Things will not change unless voters are encouraged to think for themselves and choose the candidates that will represent their needs best, rather than those who represent the same religious standpoint.

"People need to be educated about what Parliament is and what their role is," she said.

"They don't understand that they need to choose someone who will work for them.

"The MPs should not serve only the people who believe in what they say, but serve everyone.

"People need to vote for someone who has the understanding and the will to serve, who will be best for the country and for them.

"If they choose candidates just because they believe in the same ideology, then regardless of the candidates' other qualities it will not be a very successful experience."

Women must also be encouraged to weigh up their options for themselves, but unfortunately this doesn't appear to be happening.

"I was with a friend who was standing for the last municipal elections throughout her campaign," recalled Dr Qarooni.

"The women used to say that they had to follow their religious leaders and what their husbands' said.

"I haven't seen any education to change this.

"I think Islam sees women as full humans and they know what is best, regardless of any men in their lives."

Everyone must work together to encourage voters to make their own decisions, from the government down.

"Let us vote for what's best for Bahrain," said Dr Qarooni.

"If people are educated and supported by those they see as authorities in their lives, including religious leaders, to think as individuals, they will find the answers.

'It's late, but not too late."

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Shubbar Al Qaheri says that he is so disappointed in the Parliament that he may not vote next time.

"To be honest I am not happy with any of the candidates and they have not fulfilled any of my expectations," he remarked.

"I voted last time and my chosen candidate won, but he has not solved any of our problems.

"I'm not going to participate in the next election unless I know the candidate."

Dr Al Qaheri acknowledges that it's a fledgling democracy, but says that his patience is running out.

"The MPs are not mature enough," he said.

"They don't know what their duties are.

"Their experience may be very short, but they are not learning and they will all change again with the next election.

"How long do we have to wait for MPs to get experienced? 12 years? It's not good enough."

Among the topics Dr Al Qaheri wants MPs to prioritise are the issues of land ownership, corruption, nationality and unemployment.

"There are so many issues the MPs are not tackling, while people are suffering," he said.

"There has been a lot of land stolen and the MPs haven't found out who is behind it.

"We need to know who these people are.

"I'm worried about my children, I'm worried that later on they won't find a place to live.

"The MPs must talk frankly and let people know what is going on."

Nationality is of personal importance to Dr Al Qaheri, who says that his cousin's new baby has been denied a passport because his cousin was born in Kuwait.

"My MP did try to solve this problem personally, but has not been able to," he continued.

"But this is an issue affecting a lot of people and it would be easy to raise it in Parliament.

"People who come from other countries are being given nationality, but Bahrainis are still having problems getting it for their own children."

Dr Al Qaheri believes that many MPs are more interested in personal gain than serving and representing the electorate.

"They all seem more concerned with personal things, like their pensions and ensuring they get immunity from prosecution when they leave Parliament," he said.

However, he feels that things could improve if women win Parliament seats in the next election.

"It is their right to sit in Parliament, they are part of the community," observed Dr Al Qaheri.

"They will balance Parliament and raise awareness of women's issues, which the MPs are not concerned about now."

Bahrain Health and Safety Society vice-chairman Alawi Shubber had high hopes for Parliament, but they haven't been fulfilled.

Despite this he says he will continue to support democratic reform and has faith that the situation will improve.

"I was highly supportive of this step and through Parliament the people have the opportunity to express their wishes and requirements," he noted.

"Unfortunately some members are not on the level I expected.

"I expected them to be responsible and aware, to have a clear vision for our future, but some are wasting Parliament's time by proposing subjects which we didn't expect.

"Instead of proposing things which will benefit the country, they are proposing laws which discriminate against people and trying to close shops on Fridays.

"Others don't even attend the meetings. This affects all of us.

"This is a responsible position and they should be doing their best for the people and the government."

MPs should be focusing on housing problems, unemployment, increasing living standards and increasing the freedom of non-governmental organisations, he says.

One of the main problems with this Parliament is that so many political organisations are not represented.

If societies take part this year, then the next Parliament chamber may be more balanced.

"I was really disappointed that some societies did not share in the elections," remarked Mr Shubber.

"They have a long history of asking for these rights and then they didn't share them.

"I believe that if you have requests for the government then you should propose them through the proper channels.

"These societies are discussing taking part now and it will create good social dialogue if they do but they have lost four years."

The first Parliament has been an educational experience for all involved and Mr Shubber hopes that voters will make more informed choices next time around.

"In other countries people have been learning about democracy for years," he said.

"This was a good experience for people, who should now understand why they should vote and how to choose a candidate.

"They need to vote for someone who is asking for their rights and will benefit them.

"I will be looking for a candidate who is responsible and aware and has a clear programme of what he is going to do."

Bahrain International Seafarers Society chairman Captain Ali Haji Hasan says that there are too many religious figures in Parliament.

He feels that MPs need a broader perspective to be effective.

"There wasn't a good choice of candidates and I noticed that the majority were from the mosque," he said.

"They can talk nicely, but when it comes to doing things they don't really do anything.

"I wanted educated, professional people in Parliament.

"I wanted MPs who have experience in life, who have done a lot of things and been active. They should be people who are there to do public service, not to get some reward."

Evaluating progress so far, Capt Hasan says it has been poor.

"I was hoping for a lot of things from the Parliament, but I haven't seen any of them," he observed.

"The MPs haven't done anything that affected me as a person, my family or my community."

Two issues particularly dear to Capt Hasan's heart are pensions and traffic congestion.

"I worked really hard, day and night and retired in the expectation that I was going to get a three per cent a year increase on my pension," he noted.

"I got nothing, although pensions in the government sector are going up.

"The roads are also all jammed up."

Next time around, Capt Hasan hopes there will be a greater variety of people in Parliament, partly because more parties will field candidates and partly because voters will have learned from their mistakes.

"I think we will have better people in the next Parliament," he said.

"Voters didn't get what they needed in the last election, they will vote differently this time and there will be more choices.

"They will choose the best candidates."

Al Watan Society president Layla Rajab hopes that the next Parliament will feature the first female MPs.

She also hopes that MPs will make more effort to communicate with their constituents and work with others.

"The MPs need to open their offices and listen to the voters," she said.

"They need to listen to the non-governmental organisations and co-operate with them.

"There needs to be a new relationship between the political leaders and the opposition.

"I hope the opposition will participate in the next Parliament."

The way MPs perceive their own role should be examined and more training should be offered to members.

"They shouldn't just question ministers and criticise the working of the government, they should be working towards peace, justice, freedom and human rights and ensuring that no one is above the law," said Ms Rajab.

"There are serious issues facing us this year and I hope that the next Parliament will pass the personal law [which will codify women's rights in the home] and more environment legislation."

Education specialist Rima Al Saleh has been sorely disappointed by the Parliament, but hopes that the situation will improve given time.

"I was hoping that the Parliament would address really important issues which affect citizens and their quality of life," she recalled.

"It's great to know that citizens have some sort of say in what happens, but I don't think Parliament has reached its potential."

She believes that MPs should consult the experts and those who will be directly affected by legislation, rather than make ill-informed decisions.

Communication with the public should not be restricted to election campaigns.

"Where is the role of the common person?" she asked.

"The MPs meet and decide these things without taking into account the people who will be affected.

"In other countries you see advocate groups who are part and parcel of the decisions.

"Here it's very seldom that you see the common person who will actually be affected being part and parcel of the decision."

No matter how qualified an MP is, he can't have the knowledge and experience to make a good decision on every issue, so Ms Al Saleh believes they should consult interested parties regularly.

"If it's an issue regarding education, disability or the economy, the decision should be made by someone who has experience," she remarked.

"But you can't have an MP who has personal experience of each and every issue, so they should have the ability to say they need the help of experts.

"People should be invited to be part of the discussions, there should be open forums."

The fact that this is a new experience for all concerned is used as an excuse too often.

"It's taking way too long to improve," she said.

"There are many models to learn from while we build something to fit us here in Bahrain."

Despite this, Ms Al Saleh retains her optimism and says that those who decide to opt out of democracy cannot complain about the situation.

"One has to not give up," she said.

"I get frustrated that people don't take voting seriously.

"If you want things to happen you have to keep trying.

"You can't not vote and then gripe about it."

Bahrain University professor of applied physics Dr Waheeb Al Naser says that MPs should be looking towards the country's long-term future.

He fears that they are not doing enough to address the issue of nuclear power in Iran, the threat of flooding due to global warming and the need to reclaim more land.

"They need a regional vision," he said.

"For example, the nuclear power reactor in Iran will have a long term influence on the region, whether it used for peace or military purposes."

Emissions, nuclear waste and potential for accidents are of huge concern, he says.

The issue of global warming is also serious as the sea level could increase by a metre by 2100, putting 10 per cent of mainland Bahrain under water, in the worst-case scenario, he added.

"Bahrain is at a very low level and any increase in sea level will result in huge flooding," said Dr Al Naser.

"We need to make more land and make it higher to stop the water."

He hopes that a wider variety of people will stand for election this year.

"I want to see educated people, people who are dedicated to the Parliament," said Dr Al Naser.

"They should have a good sense of national co-operation, a balanced sense of religion and respect everyone.

"They should be good representatives for the community."



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