DUBAI: Bahrain’s king announced constitutional amendments on Sunday giving parliament more powers of scrutiny over government, but the opposition said they fell far short of demands for democracy that have driven a year of unrest in the Gulf Arab state.
The speech did not mention clashes between riot police and mainly Shia opposition activists that have taken place on an almost daily basis since martial law was lifted in May after the Sunni-led government crushed a pro-democracy movement.
The Gulf island nation, home to the US Fifth Fleet, is seen by the United States and Saudi Arabia as a key ally against non-Arab Shia power Iran just across Gulf waters.
The amendments, which increase powers to question ministers and withdraw confidence in the cabinet, emerged from a national dialogue King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa organized last year after the Sunni-dominated government crushed a democracy uprising dominated by majority Shias.
The main opposition party Wefaq withdrew from the dialogue, saying it did not go far enough to offer real reform.
The king, in a televised speech said: "Our people have proven their desire for continuing with reforms… We complete the march today with those who have an honest patriotic desire for more progress and reform."
"I must mention here that democracy is not just constitutional and legislative rules, it is a culture and practice and adhering by the law and respecting international human rights principles," he said.
"I beseech all sectors of society to work together so that all their sons adhere to the law, which is linked to coexistence and tolerance…"
The cabinet is headed by the same prime minister from the royal family who was appointed when Bahrain emerged from colonial tutelage in 1971. The elected parliament’s powers to legislate are neutralized by an appointed chamber.
Activists were scathing about the speech, which comes after a number of deaths in recent weeks resulting from the tense security situation.
A 24-year-old Shia man was found dead after he went missing last Wednesday. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said his body showed signs of torture, but the Interior Ministry said he had drowned.
"Shoes are being thrown at your face (on TV), you lowest of kings in the depths of hell!" wrote a Twitter user called ‘Sanabis News’, – the username a reference to a Shia district where police and youths clash daily.
Saeed Shehabi, an opposition leader based in London, wrote after the speech was announced on Sunday evening: "Never in history has a dictator become a democrat. So how can Al Khalifa be expected to change? They simply have to go."
Tensions are set to rise ahead of Feb. 14, the anniversary of the uprising last year after Egyptians and Tunisians succeeded in forcing out unpopular leaders.
Analysts say hardliners within the Khalifa family, backed by Saudi Arabia, have the upper hand and reject further reforms.