x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

2006: the year the people had their say

President decrees elections for 20 FNC seats and includes women.

No decision in the council's history has been more significant than that of Sheikh Khalifa, the President, in 2006 to open half of the seats to election, bestowing new powers on its members.

While previously all 40 council members had been appointed by the Rulers, Sheikh Khalifa declared that henceforth half would be elected, albeit by an electorate of 6,595 Emiratis. That number has since greatly expanded and is expected to do so again at the next election.

He also ruled that women would be allowed to sit in the FNC.

Members were told they would be given new powers, such as the right to debate international treaties.

But there was still a widespread lack of understanding, even among those allowed to vote, of the council's purpose.

"We didn't really know what the FNC was or what it meant to be on the list," said MS, a 2006 voter.

Six years later that problem persists, says Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for FNC Affairs.

Dr Gargash spent months in the run-up to last September's second set of elections touring the country, trying to set straight misconceptions about the council.

These included a belief by some that as they were on the electoral roll, they had a seat on the FNC.

But as word spread of the council's achievements, and its power to keep check on the Government and question ministers, being a member became more appealing.

In 2006, 456 Emiratis put their names forward as candidates for the 20 elected seats.

And after weeks of campaigning, on December 16, 18 and 20, the voters delivered their verdict and elected 19 men and one woman - Dr Amal Al Qubaisi, from Abu Dhabi.

Dr Al Qubaisi was joined by eight other female members appointed by the Rulers of the emirates.

Their numbers won praise from the UN, which in 2009 rated the UAE as one of the most progressive Arab countries in terms of female political participation.

That was lifted further last year, with the number of female electors raised from 1,162 in 2006 to 59,000, 46 per cent of the total.

Of them, 85 women stood, but again only one won. And it was widely suggested that women's greater enfranchisement had contributed to the low turnout, which fell from 74 per cent in 2006 to 28 per cent.

Dr Gargash said he had expected better. The whole process needed to be "read thoroughly", he said.

The sole winning woman, Sheikha Eisa Ghanem of Umm Al Qaiwain, was joined by six appointed female members, including Dr Al Qubaisi, now the FNC's deputy speaker.

osalem@thenational.ae