UAE holds second election for advisory body

Reuters , Saturday 24 Sep 2011

In an attempt to bolster relations between royal rulers and the ruled, the UAE is going to the polls with pre-elections seminars that keep the Arab Spring in the back of their mind

Polls opened Saturday for the second election in the United Arab Emirates, where a fraction of the population will vote for an advisory council, as the Gulf Arab state tries to forge closer links between its rulers and the people.

Half of the seats in the 40-seat Federal National Council (FNC) are being contested by 468 candidates seeking the votes of the 129,000-strong eligible electorate, just 12 per cent of Emirati nationals in the world's number three oil exporter.

"I voted for people that I know, for those who advocate for the rights of the citizens," said Ahmed Al-Janahi, 54, a marine biologist at the Ministry of Environment.

The vote is an attempt by the rulers of the seven emirates to gradually introduce representative government. The 20 other members of the council are directly appointed and the body has only advisory powers.

Former FNC members have called on the UAE government to grant the assembly more powers and have the entire council elected.

In a partial concession, the government increased the number of citizens entitled to vote to 129,000, nearly 20 times more than those who voted in the country's first elections in 2006. It has not made clear how voters or candidates were chosen.

On Saturday morning, hundreds of people lined up at Dubai World Trade Centre's polling station to cast their ballots, one of 13 stations spread across the small country.

Home to business hub Dubai and major oil producer Abu Dhabi, the small Gulf country has been virtually untouched by the Arab Spring, which saw heads of states in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya toppled.

In the run-up to elections, the government held seminars teaching candidates about the rules of campaigning, but many still appear to lack a basic understanding of the FNC's constitutional powers. Some promised to introduce new legislation, even though only government ministries are allowed to do so.

Another key issue is the female vote. Some 85 women are standing for office (and others are part of the voter pool), unlike in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where they are shut out of municipal elections.

Fathiya Al-Khamiri, a Dubai candidate, said she voted for three women and one man but was still concerned about the prospects of women winning a seat in the assembly.

"This sea of white-clad men," she said referring to dozens of Emirati men dressed in traditional white robes outside the polling station. "I am even more concerned now."

The assembly's first session will be held in October.

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