Qatar is gearing up for the first legislative elections in its history, in what analysts have called a step towards enhancing political participation for citizens in the Gulf state.
The October 2 polls will see Qatari citizens electing two-thirds of the 45-seat Shura Council, an advisory and legislative body that dates back to 1972 and is responsible for approving, rejecting and issuing general state policies and law proposals, as well as controlling the state budget. As per the country’s 2004 constitution, the emir will appoint the remaining 15 members.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consulting firm, said the vote “will not transform” the country “into a democracy”.
“But at least we can view it as a step in that direction, with these elections further gravitating Qatar towards a more representative system of governance,” he noted.
Political parties are banned in Qatar, but citizens are allowed to vote in municipal elections.
Yet an electoral law, which differentiates between naturalised and native Qatari citizens, has drawn criticism from human rights groups and naturalised citizens alike, who say it effectively disenfranchises thousands of Qataris from voting or running.
The law, approved by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in July, states that citizens over the age of 18, “whose original nationality is Qatari” or are considered naturalised but can prove their grandfathers were born in Qatar, can vote. However, other naturalised citizens are ineligible to run for legislative bodies and are denied the right to vote.
“Qatar’s attempt to establish citizen participation in government could have been a moment to celebrate, but it has been tarnished by denying many Qataris their full citizenship rights and repressing critics of arbitrary voter disenfranchisement,” Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said last month. “The new laws have only reminded Qataris that they are not all equal.”
Small-scale protests broke out in August, mostly from members of the semi-nomadic al-Murra tribe who are affected by the citizenship electoral law, and at least 15 people were arrested, according to HRW.
A September 9 statement by Qatar’s Government Communications Office (GCO) said during the voters’ registration process, a small number of citizens were arrested for “violating Qatari Law for incitement of hate speech, abusive online behaviour towards voters, and incitement of violence towards law enforcement officers and other members of the general public”.
“Public debates and discussions around the elections have been actively encouraged by the government and a competitive campaign is expected among the eligible candidates,” the GCO statement said.
“In line with Qatar’s National Vision 2030, the elections aim to strengthen the role of the legislative branch of government and enhance the involvement of citizens in the political process.”
Inclusion of women
Some 294 candidates across 30 constituencies have registered for the polls, including 29 women. According to candidate Aisha al-Kuwari, Qatar is “on the cusp” of having women elected to the Shura Council.
“Qatari women are going through a foundational experiment in order to push society towards greater acceptance of Qatari women in the electoral site, after they have proven their worth in their appointed positions in the Shura Council, the Council of Ministers and other leadership positions,” she told Al Jazeera.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said the inclusion of women in Qatar’s political sphere was not unprecedented.
“We see that women are engaged in the political process both as candidates and as voters and this should not come as a surprise given that Qatar was the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] country in which a woman, Sheikha Jufairi, won an elected race for the first time, back in the 2003 elections for the Central Municipal Council,” he told Al Jazeera.
Cafiero, of Gulf State Analytics, also pointed to the fact that a few months after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar in June 2017, Sheikh Tamim appointed four women to the Shura Council.
“That was one of the moves made by the leadership in Doha which signalled Qatar’s determination to proceed with social policy changes amid the GCC crisis,” he said.
‘Greater citizen participation’
The diplomatic rift, which lasted for three and a half years and saw the Arab quartet sever diplomatic, trade and political ties with Doha, has made Qataris more politically mobilised and far less apathetic, analysts said.
“The government realises this and is giving their citizens a chance to engage in greater citizen participation in public affairs and oversight of government,” Cafiero said.
On a global level, he continued, the Shura Council elections may serve to boost the image of Qatar as “reform-oriented and forward-thinking”, especially with the World Cup 2022 around the corner.
One main concern for the elections is that voters will choose candidates based on tribal allegiance, and not based on policy ideas.
“It is likely that people will watch the outcomes of the vote to determine whether any changes need to be considered for future elections, especially after the frustration among some groups earlier this year over voter eligibility,” Ulrichsen said.
For al-Kuwari, the electoral system is commensurate with the nature of the society it seeks to represent.
“The Shura Council elections are a manifestation of effective popular participation in the management of the nation’s affairs by qualified and experienced people, who are chosen by the citizen to take over their representation, and evaluated according to what suits the needs of society and the requirements of their life at every stage of its development,” she said.
“Each society has its historical and cultural specificity, which makes it choose an electoral system suitable for it to guarantee a fair representation of all segments and components of society.”