Voting begins in Qatar’s first legislative election

The voters will elect 30 members of the advisory Shura Council, remaining 15 members will be appointed by the Gulf state’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.

Voters cast their ballot in the Gulf Arab state’s first legislative elections for two-thirds of the advisory Shura Council, in Doha, Qatar on October 2, 2021. (Reuters)

Qataris began voting in the Gulf Arab state’s first legislative elections, to choose two-thirds of the advisory Shura Council in a vote that has stirred domestic debate about electoral inclusion and citizenship.

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Analysts say the polls, open from 0500 GMT until 1500 GMT with results expected the same day, will not lead to power shifting from the ruling family and are a largely symbolic nod to democracy.

Thirty members of the 45-seat body will be elected, while the ruling emir will continue to appoint the remaining 15 members of the Council, which will have legislative authority and approve general state policies and the budget.

The Council has no control over executive bodies setting defence, security, economic and investment policy for the small but wealthy gas producer, which bans political parties.

The legislative polls, approved in a 2003 constitutional referendum, come ahead of Doha hosting the World Cup soccer tournament next year. Critics have said voting eligibility is too narrow.

Eighteen women are standing from among around 183 candidates hoping to be elected at polling stations across 30 districts in the country, which has for several years held municipal elections.

Campaigning has taken place on social media, community meetings and roadside billboards.

The election 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.

‘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 is currently 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 producer, means nationals make up only 10 percent of the population of 2.8 million, and even then not all Qataris are eligible to vote.

The polls have stirred tribal sensitivities after some members of a main tribe found themselves ineligible to vote under a law restricting voting to Qataris whose family was present in the country before 1930.

‘Clear process’

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, 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 (HRW) has said thousands of Qataris are excluded. Small demonstrations against the law broke out in August led by Al Murra tribe members.

HRW said Qatar arrested at around 15 demonstrators and critics of the law. A Qatari source with knowledge of the matter said on Friday two remain in custody “for inciting violence and hate speech”.

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