BEIRUT

Middle East

Bahrain eyes reforms to boost parliament's powers

Riot police watch over Bahraini anti-government protesters waving national flags demonstration on the outskirts of the capital of Manama, Bahrain. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

DUBAI: Bahrain's cabinet proposed on Sunday giving more powers to the elected chamber and allowing it to question ministers, as part of constitutional reforms in the wake of pro-democracy protests last year.

The cabinet proposed amendments to "achieve greater balance between the executive and the legislative, to strengthen the role of the legislative and regulate the questioning of ministers", the state news agency BNA said.

The cabinet also approved a 5.35 million dinar ($14.2 million) programme to help 211,000 private sector workers making less than 250 dinars a month in the Gulf island country, a regional banking centre, the agency said.

The cabinet said the proposed reforms were the result of talks between Bahrain's opposition and pro-government groups which began in July, aimed at healing deep rifts opened when the Western-allied state's Sunni rulers crushed protests led by majority Shi'ites early last year.

Bahrain's largest Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq withdrew from the "national dialogue", complaining with other opposition groups they would never get their proposed reforms approved, as the opposition was allocated only 35 of 300 seats in the discussions. Some other opposition representatives remained in the talks.

There was no immediate opposition reaction on Sunday to the proposed reforms, but opposition figures have cast doubt on the ruling monarchy's willingness to offer significant concessions.

Mainstream opposition groups such as Wefaq have called for a more representative parliamentary system and greater powers for the elected lower council, whose limited powers are currently neutralised by the upper Shura council, appointed by the king.

Inspired by Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of mainly Shi'ite Bahrainis took to the streets in February and March demanding curbs on the power of the ruling Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa family and an end to perceived discrimination.

The broader pro-democracy movement was suppressed with military backing from Bahrain's Sunni-led Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

At least 35 people, including five members of the security forces, were killed in the unrest, according to an inquiry Bahrain commissioned into the protests and their aftermath. The inquiry said it found evidence of systematic abuse and torture.

Bahrain has promised to implement the inquiry's recommendations, which the U.S. Congress has linked to its approval of a $53 million arms sale to Manama, an important regional ally which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

 

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