It was a remarkable tryst with democracy when the people of Qatar voted on Saturday in the Gulf Arab state’s first legislative elections for two-thirds of the advisory Shura Council, a process that has stirred domestic debate about electoral inclusion and citizenship.
The candidates were mostly men, with only about 30 women among the 284 hopefuls running for the 30 available council seats. The turnout for the election of 30 members of the 45-seat body was 44 per cent, the election’s Supervisory Committee said on Saturday. The ruling emir will continue to appoint the remaining 15 Council members. In part, the new arrangement will effect a paradigm shift in governance.
The Council will have legislative authority and approve general state policies and the budget, but will have no say in matters relating to defence, security, economic and investment policy for the small but wealthy oil producing country, which bans political parties. “At the end of this day, the people of Qatar, they’re going to be part of the decision making,” said candidate Sabaan Al Jassim, 65, in Markhiya district. The vote indicates that the 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.
The vote is an “experiment” and the Council cannot be expected from the first year to have the “full role of any parliament”.
The elections are seen as a major step in the modernisation of the governing system. The striking feature of Saturday’s vote was the active presence of voters. There was considerable excitement among nationals who were able to vote in these elections. The [Shura Council] body has been mainly a consultative one over the past few decades but there has been a push within Qatar to share responsibility, to widen participation and to develop the relationship between the citizen and the state.
It is very important for Qataris to have their voices heard. They believe that any kind of future in the country has to include women as part of that vision to be able to make decisions, and to take part in a government that will have an impact on their daily lives. Some of the issues that the candidates have said they will address if elected has to do with women’s rights as well as amplifying their voices within the different sectors in the country. Qatar has a population of 2.6 million, but a little over 300,000 are citizens.
Notwithstanding its size, the kingdom wields disproportionate influence in the region, in part because of its Al Jazeera media network. The steps it has taken towards electoral inclusion are thus bound to resonate in other parts of the Arab world.