Qataris 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.
Turnout for the election of 30 members of the 45-seat body was 44 percent, the elections’ Supervisory Committee said on Saturday. The ruling emir will continue to appoint the remaining 15 Council members.
The Council will have legislative authority and approve general state policies and the budget, but has no say in the setting of defence, security, economic and investment policy for the small but wealthy gas producer, which bans political parties.
“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.”
Government lists showed 26 women among 233 candidates across 30 districts in the country, which has for several years held municipal polls.
Men and women voted in separate sections. Ahead of closing, a large crowd cast their ballots in a marquee in the outskirts of the capital Doha, including members of a main tribe, some of whose members had protested over narrow voting eligibility.
“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 the Markhiya district.
The vote indicates 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.
A voting ‘experiment’
Al Jazeera’s Jamal Elshayyal, reporting from a voting station in the capital, Doha, said the elections were seen as a major step in the modernisation of the governing system.
“What we’ve seen so far … is quite an active presence of voters,” he said.
“There is excitement among nationals who are 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, to develop the relationship between the citizen and the state,” he added.
“Through that came the idea or the push to make this body one that people are able to stand in, vote in and to give more powers. This is akin to other countries’ parliament in that it can draft laws, can question and even sack ministers.”
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 its ruler, as in neighbouring states.
“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. “In the end, we want to promote our society and we try our best to help our people and our government.”
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, also reporting from a polling station in Doha, said female voters expressed their happiness at being able to take part in such a historic process.
“It’s very important for them to have their voices heard,” Jabbari said. “They believe that any kind of future in this 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,” she added.
Not all Qataris eligible
Qataris number about 333,000 – only 10 percent of the population of 2.8 million – but an electoral law approved last July stated only descendants of those who were citizens in 1930 are eligible to vote and stand, disqualifying members of families naturalised since then.
Dafi Al Merri, a 30-year-old member of the Al Murra tribe, some of whose members led small demonstrations in August against the law, said the issue can be addressed by the new Council.
“We will have a good candidate to solve it, to talk about this law or any other issue in the future,” he said.
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 the protests. A Qatari source with knowledge of the matter said two people were still being held “for inciting violence and hate speech”.
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.”