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Thursday, 14 February, 2002, 12:17 GMT
Bahrain steps up democratic reforms
Map of Bahrain

The Gulf state of Bahrain has declared itself a constitutional monarchy - a major step in far-reaching plans for political and social reform launched last year.

The Emir, now King, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has called parliamentary elections in October which will be the country's first for 27 years.

Legislation has also been approved giving women the right to stand for public office for the first time.

The announcements come a year after people in Bahrain voted overwhelmingly in support of constitutional amendments put forward by Sheikh Hamad.

More than 98% of those who voted backed the proposals for a monarchy and an elected legislature.

At a ceremony constitutional amendments were signed into law by Sheikh Hamad who becomes King of the island state.

Accelerated reform

The parliamentary elections announced for 24 October had been scheduled for 2004. They will be the first since the elected parliament was dissolved in 1975 and replaced by an advisory council appointed by the Emir, now King.
The Emir of Bahrain
Sheikh Hamad became ruler in 1999

Sheikh Hamad also set 9 May as the date for reviving municipal elections that will see women running for office for the first time.

Correspondents say the landmark reforms are aimed at healing rifts between the island's Sunni Muslim government and Shia Muslim majority.

Sheikh Hamad, who became Emir in 1999 following the death of his father, said the decisions had been taken "to resume democracy as soon as possible for the welfare and prosperity of Bahrain."

As well as holding the referendum 2001, Sheikh Hamad released political prisoners, sanctioned a much freer press and invited exiled opposition figures to return home.

Until recently, Bahrain had been routinely attacked by human rights groups as a repressive state where the ruling Al Khalifa family jealously guarded the reins of political and economic power.

See also:

15 Feb 02 | Middle East
Bahrainis welcome change
18 Feb 01 | Middle East
Bahrain lifts key security law
16 Feb 01 | Middle East
Landslide win for Bahrain reforms
08 Feb 01 | Middle East
Bahrain amnesty welcomed
30 Sep 00 | Middle East
Politics open up in Bahrain
05 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Bahrain
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