x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A new day in UAE's political experiment

From today, candidates across the UAE will spend the next two and a half weeks appealing for the right to serve on the FNC. Voters must turn up to listen to their messages.

Louis Brandeis, the late American legal scholar, believed that "the most important political office is that of the private citizen". His point - that political institutions are only as strong as the voters - is worth remembering as campaigning for the Federal National Council gets underway today.

For the next two and a half weeks, 468 candidates across the seven emirates will appeal to voters for the right to serve on the UAE's federal advisory body. We wish them well as they canvass the country in search of support.

This is an experiment with participatory politics. One of the most important aspects of the FNC election process is the civic participation of voters. Candidate posters, stump speeches and well-crafted political slogans will only be meaningful if voters decide to turn out on Election Day.

There is no shortage of issues that voters want addressed - and, here, former FNC members have had a decisive influence on the public debate. Based on precampaign surveys conducted by The National, issues as diverse as health care, education and jobs - particularly Emiratisation - are nearly universal concerns. The political process will test candidates in a crowded field on their ability to address these issues.

Balancing expectations will be tricky for members of an elected body with no legal power to legislate. But for those 20 who do win seats (joining another 20 appointed by the Rulers), membership will offer an opportunity to serve as the nation's advocates, directly lobbying the UAE's Rulers and Supreme Council. Past councils have pushed policies from maternal health to labour law.

A more engaged civil society is in the country's long-term interests. Since elections in 2006, the electorate has been expanded to 130,000 Emiratis who have been cleared to vote on September 24. That has brought far more citizens into the political process as deciders at the ballot box as well as participants in public affairs.

Successful candidates will have their work cut out for them when the council is seated. The challenge for an advisory body is not only to consider and agree on good policy, but to persuade decision-makers of its merits. And, beginning today, the first decision-makers that must be convinced are the voters.