x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

FNC voting results and low turnout offer new lessons

As officials study the "learning experience" of the FNC elections, they will mainly be trying to learn why the turnout was so low.

Election Day started off quite well. In Abu Dhabi, the moment was captured by one old Emirati man, who did not have the vote, but who attended nevertheless and spoke passionately of a historic opportunity.

But for many other observers, what began as enthusiasm ended in two general disappointments in the results: a poor overall turnout; and only one woman being elected.

Out of nearly 130,000 eligible voters, just over 36,000 cast ballots, or 28 per cent. (In 2006, turnout was 74.4 per cent.) Abu Dhabi had the lowest turnout, with only 21.3 per cent casting their votes; Dubai was second lowest with 24.7 per cent. It is worth noting that Abu Dhabi had the lowest turnout in the 2006 election as well, although that was 60 per cent.

Officials have acknowledged that they expected more. Understanding why these FNC elections did not engage more voters, as might be expected in a nation experiencing only its second vote, is more than a purely intellectual exercise. Lessons were learnt, progress made, but still 72 per cent of the electorate did not turn out to have their voices heard.

Reaching out to eligible voters was a clear challenge for candidates. Some suggested that they would speak with thousands of Emiratis about their ideas and the importance of the FNC, only to find that few in their audiences actually had the vote. While the electorate was expanded massively since 2006, it is possible that trouble reaching voters was one reason that candidates had difficulty being heard.

Perhaps in the future, candidates could benefit from a database that enable them to identify who is eligible to vote, and appropriate means to contact potential supporters. This would help to boost turnout and to give young and female candidates, who might be less well-established in the community, a better chance to win.

The timetable was another factor. Candidates had only 17 days to campaign once the electoral roll was announced. This was too short a period for campaigners to make a real bond with voters and were simply left to advertise their pictures in the local newspapers. As a result, campaigns stuck to familiar networks: family members, friends and acquaintances. This makes sense, of course, in tribal dynamics because voters will be inclined to vote for people with whom they have kinship ties.

Since the electoral register was announced, debates in social media and conversations showed that many Emiratis favoured voting for candidates who were qualified by their abilities, and also wanted to promote women's roles in politics. A few voters at an Abu Dhabi polling station said they chose their candidates based on merit, and some chose to balance between female and male candidates. But a number of patterns in the results point to an obvious fact: traditional social networking was more effective than new communication media such as Twitter and Facebook.

At least a couple of the winners were not particularly active in public campaigning. They did not give lectures, declined many interviews with journalists and they showed little interest in speaking to the public. Certainly, they did not have Twitter or Facebook accounts. Yet they won.

Dr Ebtisam Al Kitbi, an Emirati professor of political science at UAE University, who followed the elections closely, said she was surprised that some candidates won because "we didn't see any ads by them, and we didn't hear from them".

In Abu Dhabi and Ajman, two prominent families dominated the results. Three out of four winners in Abu Dhabi have the surname Al Amiri, and in Ajman the two winners were Al Shamsis. And in most cases, winners with the same family name had similar vote tallies. Some voters on Saturday said they would save at least one vote for a family member "out of respect for the tribe", although they favoured voting based on merit. And votes cast by tribe appeared much more likely to be concentrated among a few candidates.

Social contacts and tribal dynamics also help to explain why the vast majority of winners were older candidates, not younger people or women. That ran contrary to some of the excitement during the campaigns about the diversity of the FNC field.

It has been argued that it is very difficult for women in the region to win in elections because of difficulties campaigning within conservative societies. Time will tell, for instance, if women in Saudi Arabia are successful in garnering support following King Abdullah's announcement yesterday that women will soon have the ability to run for office.

Although Emirati women candidates campaigned with the same vigour as men, they also were limited by social dynamics.

Voting for a familiar figure is normal the world over. But because elections for the FNC are part of a learning process, it is important to forge public discussions about the nature of civic participation. Involving the public in politics is a stated reason behind the expansion of the electoral register, and turnouts will improve as people begin to appreciate the relevance of the FNC. High turnouts would also back the case for the FNC to be given greater powers.

It is therefore of paramount importance to study low turnouts, and work to perhaps improve them in the next elections. Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for FNC Affairs, said on Saturday night that his team would submit a report to the Cabinet about the experience laying out possible reasons why so many people did not show up.

And yet, for all the post-election handwringing, we must also remember that this is only the second time citizens have been given a say at the ballot box. What is needed is to learn from this experience, build an FNC that is responsive and actionable, and work to ensure more people will cast their votes in the polls four years from now.