As the preparations begin for the UAE's first elections, the government has undertaken an awareness campaign, this week, aimed at promoting the importance of the initiative.
Anwar Gargash, the minister of state of federal national council (FNC) affairs, has been touring the country since November 1 conducting awareness seminars targeting the Electoral Colleges of the different emirates ahead of the elections taking place on December 16, 18 and 20. He told local press that the UAE is not a 'politicised country' and that the elections to the FNC are the first step on the road to an electoral culture and full elections.
The FNC is a 40 member consultative body that advises the country's executive authority, the 20 strong Council of Ministers or cabinet. The procedures for appointment to the FNC have recently been amended so that each emirate must now select its representatives through an electoral body. The size of this body must be 100 times greater than the number of representatives it appoints. For example, Abu Dhabi has eight representatives to the Federal National Council and thus the Electoral College for the emirate has to comprise at least 800 members.
Half the members of the FNC will be elected through each emirate's Electoral College. The ruler of each emirate will appoint the remaining council members. The ruler of each emirate will also appoint the voters in each Electoral College. There will be 6689 members of the Electoral Colleges. These members will also be able to nominate themselves for election. These amendments for nomination to the FNC are considered to be the first step in a wider electoral reform programme, which will see greater representation at a federal level.
The elections, which will be held in Abu Dhabi and Fujairah on December 16, Dubai and Ras Al-Khaimah on December 18 and Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al-Quwain on December 20, are the first phase in a three-step process of democratic reform. The second phase will see greater regulation for, and empowerment of, the FNC including an increase in its membership. The final stage will see the implementation of general elections for half of the FNC's membership.
Gargash told the local press, "These elections show our strategy for the future ... Our political programme is all inclusive and we won't stop here; we will reach full elections." There has been much discussion about the implications of these elections with some observers questioning their impact. Gargash countered, however, "(Some) people have said that we don't need elections; we are happy. (Others) have said that the elections came too late and were not enough. We respect that and tell them that it is better to take the first step than not take it at all."
The government sees these elections as a testing ground that will help the country to build more robust and mature political institutions. Gargash acknowledges that this will be a learning process yet he has a clear message about the nature of elections in the UAE: "We have seen how elections in some countries are divisive rather than unifying, where people vote along sectarian lines. We want to avoid that here."
The government is therefore embarking on an education drive that not only includes reaching the Electoral College members but also includes spreading awareness amongst the general public over the forthcoming elections. Tariq Hilal Lootah, the secretary-general of FNC affairs ministry, member of the National Election Committee, and head of the Election Management Committee (EMC) said, "The NEC is working on a number of education programmes to inform the general public and Electoral College members about the elections. This initiative will require a great deal of cooperation and support from print and audiovisual media in the UAE to generate greater awareness and ensure the success of the FNC elections."
The government is also keen to promote the role of women in this process. Out of the 6689 members of the Electoral College, approximately 1100 are women. Gargash believes that they have an important role to play in public life in the UAE. He asserted, "Women's participation in the FNC elections comes as part of their contribution to the development of the UAE."
Ruba Yousuf al-Hassan, a programme analyst for the UNDP, which is supporting the introduction of female candidates in the forthcoming election, told local press that she hopes that female participation is endorsed through the ballot box. She said, "While it's great that women will be included in the FNC no matter what, I would love for women to actually be elected. It would mean a lot for the work on gender development, and it would show trust and belief in women's capabilities."
Meanwhile, the government is hoping to test its new e-voting system, which is the first system of its kind in the Arab world. Gargash believes that it will provide an efficient and secure voting process. He explained, "The system is designed for the voter to vote and leave the polling station in five to seven minutes, or up to 10 minutes at peak hours."
The UAE is now also embarking on the road to reform its political institutions. As part of the process, the government is espousing the need for greater political awareness. Many observers see the December elections as the first step towards achieving this goal.