UAE: Electoral hangover

There was a dismal voter turnout in the United Arab Emirates for the Federal National Council elections, only 28 percent of the roughly 130,000 eligible voters cast a ballot. Before the polls closed, there was optimism that turnout would exceed expectation. The Dubai Media Office, which represents the government of Dubai, tweeted:

National Election Committee: The extension of voting period is due to the increasing turnout of voters at polling stations #UAE

Election Commission in Western Region: Huge turnout is clear & thanks for voters for their response & cooperation #UAE 

However, when the final turnout numbers were reported, it was clear the vast majority of eligible voters did not participate in the UAE’s democratic experiment. In 2006, when the electoral college was considerably smaller, 6,500 people, turnout was 74 percent.

But this time around all that Ahmed Mohammed Al Ameri needed in Abu Dhabi to win one of the capital’s four FNC seats was 1,153 votes — not too many considering more than 47,000 people were eligible to vote in the emirate.

The FNC is an advisory body with no legislative power. It is made up of 40 members, half of which are elected and the other half are appointed. When the Emirati leadership names the other 20 members, they may look to balance out the demographic and tribal make-up of the group by adding more women (only one was elected), a few more young people (three of the elected are in their 30s) or by appointing members of different tribal factions.

Two of Abu Dhabi’s other elected seats went to relatives of the same tribe as Al Ameri. The other winner from the capital, Mohammed Buti Al Qubaisi, won a seat with 1,199 votes despite the fact that his age, occupation and campaign issues were unknown, according to The National. Contrast that to Western political campaigns where candidates’ lives and policies are laid bare.

“The participation was good though we hoped for a broader one,” Anwar Mohammed Gargash, state minister for FNC, said. But it takes more than hope to deliver people to the polls.

Strategic mistakes were made: the campaign period, less than three weeks, was too short; there were too few polling stations; and the electoral college perhaps had too many young Emiratis and women, groups which are less likely to vote.  Voters and some of the candidates were ill-informed about the FNC’s mandate.

Many of the candidates campaigned on broad issues and in vague terms. One candidate from Abu Dhabi was interviewed — on tape — by a television journalist. The candidate said he had no platform, no opinions and no agenda. The reporter choose not to use the soundbite, but the candidate did have his lawyer send the journalist a text saying that he retracted the entire interview and threatened legal action if it were used. Perhaps the candidate was aware that such statements would not please either the Emirati leadership or the voters.

It has been argued too that the affluent lifestyle, relative good governance and great personal freedom Emiratis enjoy make them less apt to engage in Western-style democratic activities.

So going forward, how does one further promote political engagement in the UAE and who shoulders the responsibility — the Supreme Council of Rulers (the hereditary leaders of the Emirates), FNC members or the Emirati population? 

One of the arguments in the Emirates goes:  The Supreme Council of Rulers will cede more power to the FNC when the body proves that it is competent.

The problem with that is:  The rulers bare some of the responsibility for both real and perceived incompetence of the FNC, as they appointed all of its members prior to 2006 and still continue to this day to appoint half. Do the rulers not trust the people they themselves appoint? 

Another argument following the same logic: When the FNC members demonstrate they are doing an important job, which directly affects the lives of ordinary Emirates, then the people will turn out to vote for them.  

Problem: This is difficult for FNC members to do when they lack legislative powers. What can they promise their constituents when they do not have the power to make changes, they can only recommend them? Public criticism of the leadership is also not approved of.

Finally, this argument: When the population shows it wants a greater say, empowerment will come. 

Problem: Political debate is choked because there are no opposition groups or political parties. People must also know they are free to speak their minds without fear of being imprisoned.

The Vice President and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said “the most important thing we are looking for today is to expand the FNC authority,” according to Gulf News. This is something the Emirates have been saying since the early 1970s, when the FNC was created - the FNC needs to be empowered. 

But the leadership has failed to say how it technically plans to empower the FNC, and the low voter turnout will likely allow them to delay their answer once again.