Qataris voted overwhelmingly yesterday 29 April for a draft constitution that grants legislative powers to a 45 member advisory council, or Shura.

The constitution was approved by 96.6% of the voters - 68,987 to 2,145, with 274 invalid votes, Qatar's Interior Minister and president of the Public Referendum Committee, Prince Hamad bin Nasser Al Thani, announced at a news conference four hours after the polls had closed.

Dozens of Qatari men flooded the streets soon after the polls closed to start celebrating the expected results, and local radio stations were inundated with listeners phoning in to express their joy at the result.

The draft will become Qatar's first real constitution, replacing a 1972 "Provisional Political Order" that outlined only a limited government structure and did not lay out voting or other rights.

“I was pleased when I read the draft constitution. It provides the kind of drive that we were looking for. It is a first step for democratisation, and it is a significant step, maybe it should even be described as two, three or four steps all at the same time,” said Mr. Lahdan Al-Muhannadi – a political commentator in the capital, Doha.

“The Shura is going to have the right to question all the ministries. As a trained civil engineer myself, it will be good to have the ability to go to the ministry and see how things work – how efficient they are in doing their job. With the coming Shura, ministers will need to take into consideration that their work is being accessed and that they cannot just do what they want,” he added.

Emir of Qatar
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani

The council does have some power to effect significant change. No confidence measures can be brought to vote with the backing of only 15 Shura members, needing a two-thirds majority. And even though the Shura Council can be dissolved, no council can be dissolved twice for the same reason. This may prove a powerful weapon for change over time.

The Emir, Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani, was one of the first to post his ballot paper in favour of a constitution that will start to regulate the ruling family’s affairs and lay foundations for a separation of powers that is significant in the Gulf.

Not all the members of the Shura are elected. The Emir himself appoints 15 of the members himself, with the other 30 elected by popular ballot. All members serve four years and have the right to propose laws and establish committees to study them.

Qataris voted quickly, results
were announced the same day

The State Budget would also need members’ approval, and the Shura could question the Prime Minister and ministers about it – suggesting the possibility of an even more representative parliament at some future time.

“Even if we assume that the 15 selected are all supporters of the present system, which I don’t believe, they cannot affect the working of the Shura in a major way. Any amendment can be approved with a two thirds majority, so elected members will be able to perform their function," said Al-Muhannadi.

Executive authority remains with the cabinet, which is still to be selected by the Emir, but the referendum does provide a new set of checks and balances.

The foundation of an independent judiciary administering Sharia law is also provided for in the constitution, stipulating that no other body has the right to involve itself with judicial processes.

The eighth article of the constitution provides security for more conservative members of the Al Thani family, who may feel threatened by change.

“The Rule of the State shall be hereditary within the Al-Thani family and by the male successors of Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Hamad Bin Abdullah Bin Jassim. The inheritance of the Rule shall go to the son to be named by the Emir as Heir Apparent. If there is no male offspring, the Rule shall be transferred to the one from the family whom the Emir names as Heir Apparent and, in this case, the Rule would then be inherited by his male successors.” 

This article is unlikely to be amended any time soon, said Al-Muhannadi.

The Emir will also endorse drafts before they can become law, even if the Shura approves them.

However, reasons must be provided for rejecting proposed legislation submitted by the members, and Sheikh Hamad will be obliged to accept a previously rejected law should two thirds of the Shura support such a move – though he could delay its implementation for a defined period.

Aljazeera