Qatar is gearing up for the first legislative elections in its history, in what analysts have called a step towards enhancing political participation for citizens in the Gulf state.
The October 2 polls will see Qatari citizens electing two-thirds of the 45-seat Shura Council, an advisory and legislative body that dates back to 1972 and is responsible for approving, rejecting and issuing general state policies and law proposals, as well as controlling the state budget. As per the country’s 2004 constitution, the emir will appoint the remaining 15 members.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consulting firm, said the vote “will not transform” the country “into a democracy”.
“But at least we can view it as a step in that direction, with these elections further gravitating Qatar towards a more representative system of governance,” he noted.
Political parties are banned in Qatar, but citizens are allowed to vote in municipal elections.
Yet an electoral law, which differentiates between naturalised and native Qatari citizens, has drawn criticism from human rights groups and naturalised citizens alike, who say it effectively disenfranchises thousands of Qataris from voting or running.
The law, approved by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in July, states that citizens over the age of 18, “whose original nationality is Qatari” or are considered naturalised but can prove their grandfathers were born in Qatar, can vote. However, other naturalised citizens are ineligible to run for legislative bodies and are denied the right to vote.
“Qatar’s attempt to establish citizen participation in government could have been a moment to celebrate, but it has been tarnished by denying many Qataris their full citizenship rights and repressing critics of arbitrary voter disenfranchisement,” Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said last month. “The new laws have only reminded Qataris that they are not all equal.”
Small-scale protests broke out in August, mostly from members of the semi-nomadic al-Murra tribe who are affected by the citizenship electoral law, and at least 15 people were arrested, according to HRW.
A September 9 statement by Qatar’s Government Communications Office (GCO) said during the voters’ registration process, a small number of citizens were arrested for “violating Qatari Law for incitement of hate speech, abusive online behaviour towards voters, and incitement of violence towards law enforcement officers and other members of the general public”.
“Public debates and discussions around the elections have been actively encouraged by the government and a competitive campaign is expected among the eligible candidates,” the GCO statement said.