UAE elections: Gradual reform hastened by pace of regional change

21 September 2011

Expanded franchise will increase expectations

On 24 September, almost 130,000 Emirati citizens will be able to elect members of the Federal National Council (FNC). Although the body is as old as the United Arab Emirates itself, it is only the second time the membership of the FNC will be determined by popular vote. In 2006, about 7,000 selected citizens were allowed to ballot on half of the body’s 40 members.

This year, following the political turmoil across the region, the electoral college has been significantly broadened. Even though the amount of members subject to elections has not changed, and the political remit remains unaltered. The FNC is a purely advisory body, not vested with any legislative powers.

This lack of decision-making powers has been widely picked up those critical of the democratic development in the country, with questions arising about the willingness among the ruling sheiks to embrace change, or even the population’s desire for it.

“It’s the regime’s way to promote a gradual path towards change that won’t actually lead anywhere – a classic example of neo-patriarchal politics, where you provide the window dressing of an accountable and representative government, but underneath it allows you to keep on going with the same business as usual,” says Christopher Davidson, from Durham University in the UK.

“It’s difficult for anyone to be passionate and enthusiastic about something that has no real power,” he adds.

Davidson believes there is a real interest in more democratic representation among the urban middle class and the emiratis living in the poorer Northern Emirates, who will be frustrated by the slow pace of reform. Other observers are not convinced that enfranchisement ranks near the top of UAE citizens wish list.

“It’s an exotic desire, in the sense that ‘If everyone else does it, we want to do it as well.’ But its not essential, its peripheral. Even Emiratis that have been exposed to Western systems, that have lived or studied abroad, may have a preference for a more open system, but at the same time I don’t see wide clamouring for change,” says Taufiq Rahim, a Dubai-based political analyst.

In this context, the government is in no rush to bring along wide-ranging political change. It is also hoping to limit the extent of this change.

“If you are thinking about a fully transparent system, a fully empowered legislative body, and ultimately the direct election of a ruler – I don’t think any of those things are put on the table, as it involves devolving power from the top leadership,” says an analyst.

The reluctance among the highest echelons of power to contemplate real change at present was evident in the reaction to a petition by 131 reform-minded Emiratis asking for the creation of a democratically elected parliament. This mild-mannered request, sent in March this year was met with a stony silence and followed by the arrest of five of the activists. They remain in prison, their trial delayed until after the FNC elections. The authorities also dissolved the elected board of the country’s Jurists’ Association, supplanting it with an appointed leadership.

Nevertheless, there are those who do not write off the elections as an exercise in futility. Viewed from the perspective of developed democracies, they might appear paltry, but observers point out that the political set up is not ready for a fully representative government.

“Electoral democracy without proper political party development, a proper legal structure is not necessarily democratic. What you would end up having, and you will have this with the FNC election, is people who are linked to tribal structures and families,” says a UAE-based analyst.

The change brought to the region during the Arab uprisings have left their mark on the political scene in the UAE. The country’s rulers, afraid that their subjects would turn against them, felt that some concessions were inevitable.

“They increased the voter roles specifically to what was going on in the region, if they had limited the voter roles, then there would have a feeling of disenfranchisement,” says the analyst.

This follows a tried and tested approach of managing expectations, according to Davidson.

“Over 10-15 years, we’ve seen little bursts of political reform, where the UAE rulers think they have to give something to their people. But when things get better, perhaps in this case if the Arab spring democracies don’t do so well, they will be able to revert back to their old legitimacy base, and then you can expect the elections to go no further,” he says.

Others are less pessimistic. “I think that the FNC elections are meaningful, they are a step in the incremental process of change and development in the country,” says the UAE-based analyst.

Giving a sizeable proportion of Emiratis’ a stake in the political system, albeit a small one, will lead to a change in mindset, he believes.

“The challenge is what do they do between 2011 and 2016, and how do they treat those elections in 2016, I think people’s expectations will be a lot different,” says Rahim.

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