The 2011 FNC elections on September 24 marked a long-awaited step in political participation. But the events that followed were disappointing. The 28 per cent turnout, only one woman elected and limited public discussion before election day all provided some interesting lessons.
The disappointing turnout can largely be attributed to the expansion of the electoral college, which was raised from 6,000 members in 2006 to almost 130,000 in 2011, making it difficult for both voters and candidates to thoroughly understand the process, although 41 per cent of Emiratis surveyed before the elections said they were ''very interested'' in the polls.
The low turnout may also be attributed to the fact that many eligible voters were young men and women, many of whom were not aware of the importance of this poll.
The election of only one woman out of 85 female candidates, which was 16 per cent of the candidate field, also raised questions about how much candidates and voters knew about the duties and responsibilities performed by FNC members, and the education and experience required for the job.
The honest truth is that the broadcast media failed to communicate these essential points about these elections. A journalist interviewed on Abu Dhabi TV described the media disconnect by saying that "to know that the UAE had elections, you needed a psychic or a fortune-teller to read a crystal ball". Some of the media, the journalist added, avoided the subject because of National Elections Committee instructions warning against influencing the outcome.
And, of course, there is the point that the Federal National Council lacks legislative powers. So was it the Council's lack of powers or simply a lack of awareness that led to the poor voter engagement?
The elections were a response to the changing times. The UAE requires society to engage and to take an active role in the day-to-day functioning of the country. National leaders have shown their commitment to modernising the country. When Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, personally cast his vote at the World Trade Centre and said the government was working to expand the FNC mandate, the direction was clear. So what is next?
The debate should not be about the next electoral register, since there is broad agreement that every citizen should vote in the next elections, but on how to provide the FNC with the legislative powers to enact laws and pass bills.
People love to bash politicians, and FNC members are not exempt despite their lack of legislative powers. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that much of the public tends to view the FNC with scepticism or even disdain, assuming the worst about officials who receive a lifelong stipend for working in a Council that lacks decision-making powers.
But that jaded view ignores the vital role a legislative process could have to craft laws and organise institutions in line with the UAE's development and progress. The question is how to get citizens involved in the FNC - a serious public discussion will, in turn, help the FNC to evolve into its role as a legislative branch of government.
There are basic constitutional issues that need to be addressed. Would a parliament consist of two houses or one? Would it be elected in indirect or direct elections? There are many proposals for the constitutional amendments that would be needed for the FNC to assume a legislative role, but what remain the most important aspects are the balance between the executive and legislative branches and the sharing of power between the federal and emirates governments.
Any draft of constitutional amendments should be brought to a wide debate to come up with the most appropriate system. According to Article 144 of the Constitution, a constitutional amendment would be submitted by the Cabinet to the FNC and the President for his approval.
The ratification process is clearly defined in the Constitution, but it leaves questions about how the public could have input into the decision. Citizens should have an opportunity to discuss the powers of the FNC and the terms of the next election. Through that kind of empowerment of citizens in the political process we could avoid the lack of engagement in the recent election.
One proposal that could also increase public engagement is that the Council could be expanded from its current 40 seats to twice that number, to reflect population growth and give the electorate more choices. There should be a parallel movement to empower people to elect representatives while at the same time empowering those representatives to deliver on the people's demands.
Do Emiratis want full political participation? The answer is unequivocally yes. But the matter is not whether we want it or not, but how to proceed towards full political participation.
Political education should continue now that the election season is over, as a long-term national goal. Emiratis need an understanding of the specific institutional mechanisms that will drive the UAE in the future so that the political structure can complement ambitious economic development plans.
Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and legal consultant. She is the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai