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How Apathy and Fear Cast a Shadow Over Bahrain's Parliamentary Elections

11/22/2014 05:07 EST | Updated 01/22/2015 05:59 EST

Today marks Bahrain's first parliamentary election since massive Arab Spring-inspired demonstrators took to the streets in 2011 to call for greater democracy.

But while the existence of a parliamentary election in a Gulf monarchy is impressive in itself, a glance at the government's history of violent suppression of political dissent reveals that Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, is far from the 'liberal, open and transparent' country it presents itself as to investors. 'Business-friendly Bahrain' is in fact anything but.

Activists and observers say that the political climate ahead of this years elections has been mired with indifference, disappointment towards the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa family, and quiet tension particularly after Al Wefaq, the main opposition party, decided to call for a boycott earlier this month.

"The boycott from the opposition actually seemed to push Sunni's opposed to the (Shia-majority) opposition movement towards participation," says Yacoub Al-Slaise, a Sunni activist and research assistant at the University of Bahrain. "Some people who at one time were indifferent to the elections now feel an urge to participate as a way to fight off the opposition."

Nonetheless, widespread apathy remains. "People are participating for the sake of protesting. There's no expectation of real change inside parliament," he adds.

While those sentiments are not that different from previous parliamentary elections, what stood out this year for some activists was the disconcerting 'you're either with us or without us' attitude coined by George W Bush to foreign countries on the eve of the 2003 Iraq war.

Ala'a Shehabi, an economics lecturer and civil rights activist in the UK believes the government is facing a crucial crisis of legitimacy. "There's a feeling of general apathy and distrust towards the ruling family. It's no longer pitched as a reformist government. If you're pro-government, you vote. If you're not, you don't."

The reasons behind Bahrainis disillusionment with their government varies. One faction of conservative Sunni's who are opposed to monarchy, for example, urged voters through Twitter to boycott the elections because of the governments failure to deliver on promises of better healthcare and education in return for their support during the political riots in 2011.

But blind, rather than conditional loyalty, is far more likely to be the kind of support the Al-Khalifa family wants.

In an attempt to gain just that, local Bahraini media reports over the last week indicated that electoral authorities were removing voters who chose to boycott Bahrain's last election in 2011 and are likely to boycott again -- and replacing them with votes from naturalized citizens. While it's nearly impossible to prove, observers contend that the government has used political naturalization strategically on numerous accounts to ensure a high voter turnout in parliamentary elections, hence maintaining a global (and domestic) perception of political legitimacy. Among those who have been politically naturalized include thousands of Sunni Muslims from Pakistan brought into Bahrain in 2011 to strengthen its police force and military. In a Youtube video that went viral last week, one political candidate was filmed bringing in his Urdu interpreter to help deliver his campaign speech.

Speculation is also rife that the regime is trying to counter the impact of a mass boycott through implicit threats, opposition activists contend. Several Bahraini newspapers have reported that the government's ministry of justice have sent letters to Bahraini homes urging them to vote - and addressing them to people who have long been deceased or are currently imprisoned or have had their citizenship revoked. Some people believe the letters are disguised as threats. In other words, if a vote is not cast, that citizen may be denied priority access to housing or public sector employment jobs.

What is perhaps most at stake on an international level is the blind eye that Western powers choose to take towards the dangerous sectarian hatred that both Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al-Khalifa family share. The Bahraini government is always eager to host global security summits and conferences on combatting IS. But are Western nations aware that they are about to embark on another year of deepened sectarian tension, which is what launched ISIS in the first place?

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