The electorate for the UAE’s Federal National Council (FNC) could be broadened to include all adult UAE nationals by 2019.
Anwar Gargash, FNC Affairs Minster, said on 27 July that voting rights would be granted to at least 80,000 citizens in the upcoming election, which will take place on 24 September.
The next election, to be held in four years time, might draw on an electorate of around 150,000, he said at a speech held at the Police Officers Club in Abu Dhabi.
“The next step might be to have 150,000 voters, and then after that everyone,” said the minister. FNC elections take place every four years. If the government adopts the timeline outlined by Gargash, universal franchise would be in place by 2019.
In the last elections held in 2007, less than 7,000 citizens had the right to vote in 20 of the 40 members of the council.
Gargash said the government’s decision was in line with the move towards democracy in the region, where popular protest swept away regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
“What is going on in the Arab world affirms that we are going in the right direction,” he said.
But observers are critical of the government’s gradualist approach, saying that it does not reflect the democratic aspiration of many of its citizens, or pay tribute to the changed political landscape after the Arab Spring.
“It fits exactly in line with what the policy has been over recent years which is one of gradualism. Its somewhat insulting to the citizenry, and betrays the lack of awareness and understanding of the forces spreading throughout the region including the Gulf states,” said Christopher Davidson, a Middle East specialist at Durham University.
The increase of the electorate to 80,000 has been planned even before the uprisings in the Arab world.
Further concerns relate to the limited influence of the FNC, an advisory body that has no legislative powers.
“We don’t need to be just talking about the FNC itself, and who can and can’t vote, we need to be talking about the relative power of the FNC,” says Davidson.
The government responded to a petition submitted calling for greater powers of the FNC and a wider franchise by arresting five political activists.
The five men, who had been among the 133 signatories of the petition, submitted on 9 March, are currently standing trial for “humiliating” top UAE officials.
The arrest and the trial of the men has been widely criticised by human rights groups.
“UAE rulers are prosecuting these activists solely for advocating democratic reforms,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said on 15 June.