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 trickled 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 asked to be identified by only one name, told Reuters. “I’m really happy about the number of women standing as candidates.”
The Council will have legislative authority and approve general state policies and the budget, but has no control over executive bodies setting defence, security, economic and investment policy for the small but wealthy gas producer, which bans political parties.
Latest government lists showed 26 women among 234 candidates 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.
“At the end of this day, the people of Qatar, they’re going to be part of the decision making,” said another male candidate in the same district, Sabaan Al Jassim, 65.
The vote 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 neighbouring states.
The huge number of foreign workers in Qatar, the world’s top liquefied natural gas supplier, 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 were 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 from voting.
The organisation said Qatar arrested about 15 demonstrators and critics of the electoral law during small protests in August led by members of the Al Murra tribe.
A Qatari source with knowledge of the matter said on Friday two people remain in custody “for inciting violence and hate speech”.