x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Observers say FNC election is big step forward

UN adviser points to the vast enlargement of the electoral college, while a Sharjah professor says patience is still required.

ABU DHABI // As candidates and voters prepare for tomorrow's elections, international election experts say they mark an important step in the country's development.

Linda Maguire, senior policy adviser with the UN Development Programme's democratic governance group in New York, praised the 20-fold expansion of the electoral college, from 6,595 to almost 130,000.

"The UN makes it a habit not to comment on any state's electoral process or outcome," she said, "but certainly the more democratic and inclusive a system is, the better it will reflect the will of the people and adhere to the human rights norms and standards of the UN.

"Enlarging the electoral college means that more people - and potentially more diverse interests - are in power and can influence policies."

Now the key will be turnout. "Election outcomes are determined by those who participate," she noted.

"High participation helps ensure that the consensus choices are elected and that the officials who are elected enjoy a degree of legitimacy that is sometimes not there with very low participation rates."

A 2009 UN report said the UAE was among the most progressive Arab countries in terms of female political participation. Nine of 40 members in the last FNC were women, though only one was an elected member.

Alejandro Salas, a Berlin-based regional director of Transparency International, a global group whose tasks include monitoring elections, said the 20-fold expansion of the electoral college marked a move from "almost nothing to something significant".

"And it is important that these steps continue," he said.

Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for FNC Affairs and chairman of the National Election Committee (NEC), has repeatedly stated that the process would continue forward.

"I always compare the process to a bike," he said. "Always moving and never stops."

And while the NEC has been focusing for months on raising political awareness, Mr Salas said the wider scope of this year's elections would be the emergence of a political culture.

"It will help in building culture in citizens not aware of the importance of elections right now and how it will benefit them," he said. "It will have a positive effect in the country."

Ms Maguire said elections were "a powerful democratic governance tool of voice, accountability and, ultimately, human development".

An important next step, according to Mr Salas, would be for the UAE to introduce election monitoring.

"But for now in the Arab countries, even if small steps, it is not only understandable - but also important to live in and experience democracy."

Dr Mark Rush, whose brother is a US politician, has written extensively on elections and election law in North America and Europe.

As dean of arts and science at the American University of Sharjah, he has followed the UAE election closely, and does not believe it is for outsiders to "look in and say it is not fully democratic", describing that as a "partially inaccurate and unfair analysis".

While it was reasonable for political analysts to ask why not all Emiratis get a vote, he said, "the UAE is as entitled to walk through these steps slowly, and carefully, as many nations have."

He pointed that out that in many countries, including the US, for "the longest of times" women and certain ethnic minorities could not vote.

Nor should too much hope be pinned on tomorrow's turnout, which he said was not the only measure of success. An unexpectedly low turnout would "certainly not be a reason to despair".

"I think it's important to keep the entire region into perspective," he said. "What will be nice in the end is that we had elections, with no violence [unlike other nations] - all peacefully and rationally."

Still, "all eyes will be on the UAE" as it conducts the Middle East's first elections since the Arab Spring.