x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A peek behind the scenes of a quirky FNC election season

FNC election campaigning has revealed that many candidates take the responsibility seriously. But there are also some tricky aspects, especially involving Photoshop.

When election fever finally abates this Saturday, and Emiratis from across the UAE cast their ballots for the Federal National Council, some will breathe a sigh of relief.

"My wife can't wait for the election to end so that I stop getting proposals from female voters," one candidate told me recently. His wife, on hearing this, could not resist adding: "Well, it is the fault of Photoshop that has made all our husbands look younger and handsomer this month."

________________________________________________________________________________________

Sound & Vision: FNC election coverage
Full election coverage here

_______________________________________________________________________________________

For this very reason, many female candidates have avoided listing their mobile numbers on posters, limiting their public contact to emails, Facebook and Twitter.

"While this could be the best way to meet my future husband, to have that chance to sit and have a nice political discussion with a respectful man, I am not sure what to do with male voters who will keep calling after the elections are over," said one female candidate who decided not to post her number.

"Already men are stopping me in public and saying: 'Oh, you are that candidate,' and then they want to strike up a conversation that has nothing to do with the elections," she laughed.

Having covered elections in other Arab countries, including Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia, there is a refreshing sense of dedication here. Candidates and voters who I have met believe that it could be one of the most important experiences of their lives.

After meeting so many jaded voters in the Arab world over the past decade, I was happy to see some Emirati voters look past the slogans and ask candidates difficult questions about their campaigns and what they would really do if elected.

But it wasn't the case with every voter. I have heard voters asking a candidate "what is in it for me?" with a few going as far as to ask for money or a gift for their vote. Some candidates seem to only make a hazy distinction between the "goody bags" that they give to voters after a meeting and an outright bribe. One candidate was giving out luxury purses to female voters, and expensive wallets and key chains to the men.

Certain candidates with tribal alliances have admitted that some voters have asked them if they could get a "camel or horse" if they cast a vote in their favour.

Of course, National Election Committee rules state that "a candidate is banned from giving in-kind or cash gifts to voters". Candidates are also banned from using UAE official emblems or symbols. Yet the national flag is often posted on home pages and posters.

When I pointed out to a candidate that having a UAE flag on her campaign website was a violation of the rules, she said: "We are still learning. Be patient with us, the flag is part of our identity and we can't imagine campaigning without it."

Candidates' business cards have also been distributed in bulk across neighbourhoods, many thrown at the front doors of non-Emiratis who are not eligible to vote.

"It would be great if expats were involved," said one of those expatriates. "It would be one of the best and only chances to meet and get to know Emiratis and what is important to them."

During the campaign, I particularly enjoyed going to villages and talking to the older generation. Many older people didn't even know elections were taking place, and those who did, found it amusing.

"We always had elections, but only among ourselves," said a 70-year-old tribesman. He told me how annoyed he had become when one of his grandchildren tried to explain what an election was. It was always common within tribes for members to elect their chiefs, and if they were not happy with a chief, he would be replaced by a new one more worthy of that position.

As we await this historic election, I can't help but think that maybe I should commission one of those posters for myself. I'm not running for anything, but a little Photoshop never hurt anyone.

 

rghazal@thenational.ae