Gulf voters slouch to the polls

Strictures on voting, lawmakers’ powers mean people’s voice is barely heard as voters head to polls in Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia.

Persian Gulf Map 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Persian Gulf Map 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Citizens of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – three Gulf states ruled by absolute monarchs – will be getting a tiny taste of democracy in the coming days as they go to the polls.
The voting will be the first in the Middle East for elected office since the outbreak of the Arab Spring nine months ago, but analysts and activists said the three exercises in democracy are aimed more at preserving the grip of the region’s hereditary rulers than at granting democratic rights to citizens.
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“They are regime-sponsored democracy to win headlines abroad especially with their allies in the West and to make their citizens think that they are going somewhere on reform,” Christopher Davidson of Britain’s Durham University, who specializes in the politics of the Gulf region, told The Media Line.
With the exception of Bahrain, the Gulf has been spared the upheavals that have brought down three of the region’s autocrats this year and threatens the rule of others. Most of the region’s emirates sit on vast petroleum reserves, enabling them to fund lavish development and subsidies.
The handouts have increased this year as rulers have grown nervous that the Arab Spring might spread to their countries. But the Gulf’s rulers have so far avoided any political reform that would impinge of their rule.
In Bahrain, where polls open on Saturday, voters are being asked to fill 18 seats in the country’s parliament that became open after lawmakers belonging to the opposition Shi'ite Al-Wefaq Party quit in protest against the country’s Sunni monarchy. The same day, UAE voters will be electing 20 candidates for the seven-state federation’s Federal National Council (FNC). Five days later, on September 29, Saudis will be selecting candidates for municipal councils.
The countries’ leaders are urging their citizens to turn out in large numbers for the elections.
“The citizen is the key element in the development and progress of the country, and should be a partner in shaping the future of the nation and shaping its policy,” Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s president and emir of Abu Dhabi, its biggest member, said in an address to voters. “We view the upcoming elections on September 24 as the perfect opportunity to make a major step towards this goal, which will be achieved, God willing, with your virtuous efforts.”
But analysts say voters are largely apathetic, if not hostile, to the elections. In all three countries, the franchise is either severely restricted or being boycotted, while the legislative bodies themselves are toothless. Local media have not covered the races and they have generated little discussion among voters, said activists.
The elections in Bahrain are taking place against a background of political turmoil. The island state was shaken by mass anti-government protests earlier this year, followed by a severe crackdown that saw more than 1,000 arrested. Martial law has been lifted, but anti-government protestors clash with police almost daily.
The leaders of Bahrain’s Shi'ite majority, who say they experience severe discrimination at the hands of the country’s Sunni rulers, have told voters to boycott the elections, a move that if successful will ensure that Sunni candidates win. On Wednesday, traffic was brought to a crawl on many Bahrain highways after opposition groups called on people to flood the roads with cars in a show of strength before the elections.
“The boycott is a message to the government that we need reform – not only elections. The whole system has to be changed,” Mohammed Al-Maskati, president of the Bahraini Youth Society for Human Rights, told The Media Line. “The parliament doesn’t have any power to change laws or review them.”
The government has offered the opposition carrots and sticks. This week it vowed to crack down harshly on protestors. But, in a decree aimed at easing tensions before elections, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa established a special fund to pay compensation to those harmed "physically or morally" by public officials or security forces during the anti-government protests earlier this year.
By contrast, voting day in the UAE is likely to be quiet, if for no other reason than that not many people have any reason to go the polls.
Although the number of Emiratis allowed to vote has been expanded by nearly 20-fold since the last elections in 2006, just a little over 129,000 of approximately one million native-born citizens are entitled to cast a ballot. The voters are hand-picked by the rulers, according to tribal and regional ties. Moreover, the 40-seat council is only half elected, with the other half appointed by the UAE’s emirs.
The government has been quick to put down any signs of political activity. Five activists, including a prominent blogger and an economics professor, were arrested in April and charged with anti-state crimes because they signed an on-line petition calling for constitutional changes and a greater political voice.
Davidson said the UAE elections had generated interest on social media networks, which could generate a ‘’reasonable’ voter turnout.
“But [the results] will an anti-climax,” he said. “The FNC doesn’t have the powers of a proper legislature It can’t question ministers or comment on policy, so it doesn’t matter whether 5% or 100% of the people are taking part in the elections.”

In Saudi Arabia, voting rights are similarly constrained. Next week’s elections will be only the second time in the monarchy’s 79-year history that any voting for any office is being held. In 2005, municipal elections were held and second elections were supposed to follow four years later, but they were delayed until now. Many Saudis complain that after the elections, the councils seem to evaporate, with no reports of public meetings or channels for citizens to petition council members.
Approximately 1,630 seats on 258 municipal councils are at stake in next Thursday’s polling. But only half of the local council seats are to be decided in the election, with the rest appointed by the government. Only men are allowed to run for office.
The kingdom’s Shura Council recommended earlier this month that “all necessary measures” be taken to allow women to vote, but King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz has yet to approve the proposal. With less than a week to election day, it looks as if only men will be entitled to cast ballots.