ABU DHABI // A high ranking member of the Federal National Council (FNC) yesterday called for the creation of a fund financed by the Government and private companies to help election campaigns to be fair and transparent.
Ali Jassim, the oldest member of the FNC and one of its two deputy leaders, added that election candidates should be given equal time on local television stations to campaign. "The abilities of the members are not equal and they differ from emirate to emirate," Mr Jassim said, speaking of their ability to fund a campaign.
And in a separate statement issued by WAM, the state news agency, Mr Jassim said the voting age should be lowered to 18 from 21 to improve participation and draw youth away from "extremist tendencies". Mr Jassim was speaking from Geneva after an International Parliamentary Union conference. He said in an interview that the fund could supplement the candidates' personal wealth in paying for their campaigns.
The increased oversight would allow the government to ensure no money from abroad or from influence-seeking corporations could be used to fund campaigns, he added. It would prevent funding from Islamist groups or countries like Iran that might seek to influence the political landscape, he said.
His statements reflect a desire by some FNC members for more clarity on election guidelines ahead of a vote scheduled for February. Others, however, oppose measures like lowering the voting age because they say younger constituents might elect less-experienced representatives.
Half of the 40 members of the FNC were elected in 2006 by an electoral college of roughly 6,500 Emiratis. The council's term was supposed to expire in 2008, but a constitutional amendment extended each term to four years. In addition to calling for an election law to govern the whole process - now there are only guidelines issued by the election committee - members say there is not enough time to carry out fully-fledged campaigns.
Hamad al Midfa, an elected member from Sharjah, said if the government presents an election law to the FNC, that legislation could feasibly be studied and put to the vote in the chamber within a month.
Mr al Midfa said he agreed the creation of a fund would help ensure a fairer election. The reliance on personal wealth in the 2006 races meant some members were better positioned for the campaign.
"There were differences," he said. "Some in the past elections spent millions and others entered the elections without paying anything, and they relied on word of mouth."
Mr al Midfa said equal access to such a fund's resources was key, as was transparency, to ensure there was no undue influence on the election's outcome. Though the 2006 elections committee rules limited expenditures to Dh2 million, more effort should be spent on making sure there were "equal opportunities", he said.
Campaign spending varied widely that year, from Dh4,200 to a high of Dh2m. All candidates were required to submit a budget and disclose all their sources of funding.
No ministry or government department was permitted to spend money on the campaigns. Candidates were not allowed to accept money from foreign sources.
Sultan al Muezzin, an elected member and the head of the health, labour and social affairs committee, said financing needs varied from emirate to emirate.
Although media appearances would be more valuable in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, 60 per cent to 70 per cent of campaigning is based on word of mouth because of the nature of the society, said Dr al Muezzin.
The 2006 elections were "very credible", said the member from Fujairah, who spent about Dh150,000 on his campaign.
"An acceptable range is between Dh100,000 to Dh160,000, but some may have overspent and relied on campaigns in the media," he said. "It is different from emirate to emirate."
But he said he doubted a fund would be useful, particularly if a large number of candidates decided to run. And guaranteeing equal time on TV was impractical, he said.
Similarly, although Mr al Midfa, Mr Jassim and other say the current generation of youth is "aware and educated" and can be trusted with the responsibility of voting in elections, others, such as Ali al Matroushi, a member from Ajman and head of the defence committee, have said more mature, experienced members are needed.
That means older voters, not younger ones, he said. Mr al Midfa dismissed these concerns. Although there are benefits to experience, "it depends on the individual members," he said.
"There are members with a lot of experience and they do not accomplish much and there are younger members who are energetic and have done a lot." Dr al Muezzin favours a solution that would double the number of voters in the electoral college, saying the country was "not yet ready" for universal suffrage.