Qataris began voting on Saturday in the Gulf Arab state’s first legislative elections for two-thirds of the advisory Shura Council in a vote that has stirred domestic debate about electoral inclusion and citizenship.
Voters began trickling into polling stations, where men and women entered separate sections to elect 30 members of the 45-seat body. The ruling emir will continue to appoint the remaining 15 members of the Council.
“With the chance to vote I feel this is a new chapter,” Munira, who writes children’s books and who asked to be identified by only one name, told Reuters. “I’m really happy of the number of women standing as candidates.”
The Council will enjoy legislative authority and approve general state policies and the budget, but has no control over executive bodies setting defense, security, economic and investment policy for the small but wealthy gas producer, which bans political parties.
Eighteen women are among around 183 candidates hoping to be elected at stations across 30 districts in the country, which has for several years held municipal polls.
Campaigning has taken place on social media, community meetings and roadside billboards.
“This is a first-time experience for me… to be here and meet people talking about these things that we need,” said Khalid Almutawah, a candidate in the Markhiya district. “In the end we want to promote our society and we try our best to help our people and our government.”
The election indicates Qatar’s ruling al-Thani family is “taking seriously the idea of symbolically sharing power, but also effectively sharing power institutionally with other Qatari tribal groups,” said Allen Fromherz, director of Georgia State University’s Middle East Studies Center.
The election, approved in a 2003 constitutional referendum, comes ahead of Doha hosting the World Cup soccer tournament next year. Critics have said voting eligibility is too narrow.
A VOTING ‘EXPERIMENT’
Qatar’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, last month described the vote as a new “experiment” and said the Council cannot be expected from the first year to have the “full role of any parliament”.
Kuwait has been the only Gulf monarchy to give substantial powers to an elected parliament though ultimate decision-making rests with the ruler, as in neighboring states.
The huge number of foreign workers in Qatar, the world’s top liquefied natural gas producer, means nationals make up only 10% of the population of 2.8 million. Even then not all Qataris are eligible to vote.
The polls have stirred tribal sensitivities after some members of a main tribe found themselves ineligible to vote under a law restricting voting to Qataris whose family was present in the country before 1930.
The foreign minister has said there is a “clear process” for the electoral law to be reviewed by the next Shura Council.
“The Qatari leadership has proceeded cautiously, restricting participation in significant ways and maintaining important controls over the political debate and outcomes,” said Kristin Smith Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
But popular politics is unpredictable, she said. “Over time Qataris may grow to see their role and rights differently as this public forum develops.”
Human Rights Watch has said thousands of Qataris are excluded. Small demonstrations against the law broke out in August led by Al Murra tribe members.
The organization said Qatar arrested around 15 demonstrators and critics of the law. A Qatari source with knowledge of the matter said on Friday two remain in custody “for inciting violence and hate speech”.