Bahrain recently held groundbreaking national elections. Forty legislators were chosen by voters to fill the House of Deputies, one of two parliamentary chambers. A second chamber, with equal legislative power, is appointed by the king. Following the vote, President George W. Bush said Bahrain was an "important example of a nation making the transition to democracy."
It was the first time in almost thirty years that Bahrainis went to the polls to elect members of parliament. A majority of voters turned out, despite the call of some opposition groups to boycott the elections based on their concerns that lawmaking powers will be shared equally with an appointed council.
According to the Bahraini government, more than fifty percent of the electorate voted. Bahraini women participated in the electoral process as both candidates and voters. Although no women candidates won election, it was the first time women appeared on a national ballot in Bahrain.
The parliamentary elections are the latest in a series of political steps started by King Hamad, the ruler of Bahrain. He came to power in 1999, following the death of his father. Soon after, Bahrain held a referendum on a National Action Charter, which outlined plans to introduce constitutional reforms. It was overwhelmingly supported by Bahrainis.
King Hamad announced that Bahrain would become a constitutional monarchy. Security laws permitting arbitrary arrest were repealed. Political prisoners were released. Opposition leaders living in exile were invited home. Bahrain enacted a new labor law that grants workers, for the first time, freedom of association and the right to organize trade unions. Although freedom of press and speech are still limited by the government, restrictions have been loosened in the past year.
It remains to be seen how the new parliament of Bahrain will function and whether it will work to improve the lives of Bahrainis. But Bahrain is on a road that can lead to expanded freedom, more government accountability, and greater respect for human rights. The United States welcomes the process that has been unfolding in Bahrain. As President Bush said, "Bahrain is a close friend. . . I strongly support the efforts King Hamad and the people of Bahrain have taken to uphold democratic principles and the rule of law."