On Saturday, U.S. ally Bahrain will have its first parliamentary elections since the 2011 mass demonstrations calling for democratic reform. The troubled kingdom has been rocked by nearly four years of political unrest since these demonstrations were violently suppressed by the government. Up for a vote are candidates for the 40 seats in the lower house of parliament, while the 40 seats in the upper house remain appointed by the king.
While the regime has promised the elections will be "free and fair," supporters of human rights and democracy should pay close attention to these seven things as the results of the election come in:
1. Voter Turnout In the last parliamentary elections, held in 2010, the Bahraini government claimed that voter turnout was more than 67 percent. The country's main opposition groups are planning to boycott the polls on Saturday, citing a lack of general political reform and an unfair electoral process. If these boycotts result in a significantly lower voter turnout for this election, it will further damage the ruling family's credibility in claiming to reform.
2. Surge in Arrests The days leading up to the election have already seen an increase in arrests, including that of activist Ebtisam Alsaegh and a dozen other women targeted in connection with an unofficial public referendum campaign. As criticism of the ruling family continues to intensify, election day is likely to lead to more arrests, as the security forces respond by rounding up activists.
3. Social Media Attacks Bahrain's failure to move toward a more inclusive political system has deepened sectarianism tensions, reflected in increasingly polarized and abusive exchanges on social media, particularly Twitter. These exchanges will likely increase as the election nears.
4. U.S. Government Reaction A low turnout leading to an unrepresentative parliament will heighten Bahrain's instability, in turn increasing the risk for U.S. assets. Bahrain is part of the anti-ISIL coalition and hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters. But strong military ties are countered by a volatile political context threatening U.S. interests. The elections should be another prompt for the U.S. government to push for a lasting political deal and an inclusive government.
5. No Change at the Top One thing to be certain of is that Bahrain's power center will not change the top of the Bahraini regime will be unaffected by Saturday's elections. The king's uncle will remain the unelected prime minister, a position he has held for over 40 years, while the ruling family will continue to dominate the cabinet and control the government.
6. A New Opening? Hyperoptimists might see the elections as producing a new opportunity for a political deal. Saturday marks almost three years to the day since the king promised to implement a framework of reform recommended by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, an investigation into the human rights abuses, corruption and unrest of early 2011. A failure to deliver on that promise has fostered the worsening political crisis and a further crackdown on civil society. A failure to deliver real representation through elections might be the final nudge for Bahrain's international backers to end their "wait and see" approach and adopt a more vigorous insistence on real, not cosmetic, change.
7. Everyone Claiming Victory Expect both the government and the opposition to both claim the election as a victory. The government will be satisfied to have a new parliament that will support the ruling family's agenda, while the opposition will count it a win that low participation in some areas will erode government credibility. The real winners are likely to be violent extremists able to exploit disillusion with this version of democracy.
As the results of Bahrain's parliamentary election come in, one thing will be certain: This election will not solve the instability and political unrest that is tearing the country apart. There will be no real progress until opposition groups and reformers are allowed to be a genuine part of the political process.