Qatar Votes in First Election With World Cup Spotlight Ahead
(Bloomberg) -- After almost two decades of delays, Qatar holds its first ever legislative elections Saturday, giving people a modest say in how they’re governed as it prepares for intensifying global scrutiny ahead of hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup.
Among Gulf monarchies, only Kuwait has taken real strides toward empowering voters, with a fully-elected parliament. Yet its quasi-democracy contributed to dysfunctional policy making. The ballot in Qatar, enabled under a 2003 constitution, won’t dilute the ruling dynasty’s power in the same way. It has, though, exposed undercurrents of dissatisfaction in a country that’s called for democracy abroad but tolerated little dissent at home.
Citizens will choose two-thirds of the 45-member Shura Council, which can introduce and approve some laws, pass budgets and question ministers. Until now, it was appointed entirely by the emir, who’ll still fill 15 positions and retain a veto over decisions. Twenty-eight of 284 candidates are women and parties are banned.
“The authorities are really looking to maintain a grip on the process, the candidates, and to a degree, the outcome,” said Sofia Meranto, a Gulf analyst at Eurasia Group. “The changes will be mostly cosmetic for now, but opening up public debate space creates long-term risks.”
It’s a critical time for Qatar -- a U.S. ally that’s the world’s largest LNG producer and wields a more than $360 billion sovereign wealth fund -- given the World Cup spotlight and the credit earned playing a pivotal role evacuating foreigners and Afghans from Taliban rule.
Constituents debated candidates on policies ranging from investment transparency to the need for maternity leave and expanded social-security benefits at virtual meetings and small hotel gatherings, with discussions sometimes turning acrimonious on Twitter.
Members of the Al-Murrah tribe, many of whom were barred from the ballot by a controversial 2005 rule that distinguishes between citizens based on where their ancestors lived, led August protests not seen in Qatar for decades. An emiri order to disperse and government promises to look into the nationality law appeared to quell the outrage, but Human Rights Watch says at least 14 people were arrested.
“I’m not sure if Qatar is factoring in that ‘unintended consequences’ element, where you’re going to get a bolder population, potentially more willing to protest,” said Kuwait University political scientist Bader Al-Saif.
Meranto predicts conservative business interests may hold outsize sway in the council as in other Gulf bodies, potentially fomenting a public backlash against Sheikh Tamim’s modernization agenda. They’ve already tried. Earlier this year, the council unsuccessfully sought to convince the government to scale back labor reforms that brought Qatar rare international praise.
Ali Issa Al-Khulaifi, a Qatari lawyer, downplayed the potential for disagreements, with government and council adopting a “merged point of view.” Qatar’s Government Communications Office said in a statement the elections aim to strengthen the role of the legislative branch and enhance the involvement of citizens in the political process.
“Qatar’s looking for the Goldilocks middle ground” between a legislative body like Kuwait’s, that’s powerful enough to obstruct but not insist on policy, and councils in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that wield little power, said Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“I think Kuwait was front and center in their minds as they were crafting the system,” said Al-Saif, pointing to the emiri appointments and provision that requires two-thirds of Qatar’s council to drag ministers into questioning.
“We are the model case for the rest of the Gulf on what not to do.”
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