Political parties are illegal in Bahrain. Several underground groups, including branches of Hizbollah and other pro-Iranian militant Islamic groups, have been active. Anti-regime dissidents have frequently been jailed or exiled. However, Sheikh Hamad bin 'Isa al-Khalifa in 1999 issued an amnesty for most political prisoners, ended the house arrest of Shi'ite opposition leader Sheikh Abdul Amir al-Jamri, and granted permission for the return of 108 people in exile. By February 2001, the emir had pardoned and released all political prisoners, detainees, and exiles. In addition, the reinstatement of dissidents fired from public sector jobs, the lifting of travel bans on political activists, and the abrogation of state security laws have all created a more open atmosphere for political expression.
Beginning with municipal elections in May 2002, candidates from a wide variety of political groups have formed a more pluralistic political culture in Bahrain. As of December 2002, these groups were not officially designated as political parties, but they had the attributes of democratic parties in the West: they can field candidates in elections, organise their activities, and campaign freely. There are seven main political groups: the Arab-Islamic Wasat (Center) Society (AIWS); the Democratic Progressive Forum (DPF); the Islamic National Accord (INA); the National Action Charter Society (NACS); the National Democratic Action Society (NDAS); the National Democratic Gathering Society (NDGS); and the National Islamic Forum (NIF).
In addition, numerous other non-governmental organizations were set up after the constitution was endorsed in February 2001, among them the Bahrain Human Rights Society, the Supreme Council for Bahraini Women, and the Organization Against Normalization with Israel. These organizations campaign on single-issue platforms, hold public discussions and meetings, consult with the government, and are members of Bahraini delegations to international forums.