The council was created in 1999 with Qatar's first set of elections, and this will be its third term.

 

More than 28,000 citizens are registered to vote in the emirate, which has an indigenous population of 174,000 out of 750,000 inhabitants.

 

Close watch

 

Sawsan Abu Hamda, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Qatar, said "calmness" prevailed over the capital Doha as the vote got under way.

 

"Until a few years back, people would not dare express their opinions in public. Today they freely criticise the government"

Sheik Khalid Bin Jabor Al Thani, deputy chairman of the election committee

"[Qataris hope] the council will better services for the citizens in the near future particularly following the criticism it has received during the past few years," she added.

 

Nightly election rallies have been held since campaigning began on March 8, with audiences listening to speeches by government officials, legal experts, candidates, voters and journalists.

 

Many people have publicly criticised the outgoing council and the shortcomings of Qatar's electoral law.

Many of the election manifestos feature promises to tackle everyday issues such as improving the quality of Qatar's roads.

 

Close monitoring

 

Government officials say the election will be closely monitored to see how women candidates fare.

 

Eighty per cent of Qatar's population are expatriate workers and are ineligible to vote.

 

Qatari citizens of 18 years and older can cast ballots. Qataris with less than 10 years citizenship cannot vote.

 

With at least half the population being under 18, this leaves the country with about 28,000 registered voters, almost half of whom are women.

 

Recent reforms

 

Qatar is ruled by a royal family and has introduced reforms in recent years.

 

"We are in the process of learning. Democracy cannot be achieved overnight," said Sheik Khalid Bin Jabor Al Thani, a member of Qatar's royal family and deputy chairman of the election committee.

 

"Until a few years back, people would not dare express their opinions in public. Today they freely criticise the government."

 

Observers say the municipal council vote will encourage the eventual election and operation of a transparent governing body that allows public debate and input.

 

A 2003 vote approved a new constitution leading to the eventual creation of a parliament.

 

The national legislature would be partially elected by the people and partially appointed by the emir.