Poll test gains steam

UAE POLITICAL MODERNISATION : Gradually introducing political modernisation with an eye on the regional environment, fits the UAE model of steady grow

Poll test gains steam
Much debate has taken place in the last 15 years about the nature of political systems across the Gulf and West Asian countries. Since the establishment of the federation in 1971, the seven principalities that constitute the United Arab Emirates have forged a distinct national identity through a consolidation of their federal status. In an unstable region, the federation enjoys the freedom of political stability combined with rapid economic and social development.

The UAE’s political system is a unique combination of the traditional and the modern. The governance system has underpinned the country’s political success, enabling it to develop a modern administrative structure and government. Simultaneously, it has ensured that the key elements of the nation’s culture and identity are maintained, adapted and preserved.

It is in this spirit of adopting change amid continuity that the Federal National Council (FNC) elections were conducted in early October. After the 2006 and 2011 polls, this year’s exercise took forward the political modernisation experiment initiated through a landmark national programme unveiled in 2005. Consequently, 20 of the 40 FNC members are now elected while the rest are selected by the rulers of the emirates. Like in other Gulf countries, there are no political parties here too.

Anchored in gradualism, the political development process has helped keep pace with the simultaneous process of economic and social liberalisation that the country is experiencing. It must be noted that the country has progressed from 'camel to cruise' in less than 50 years. Hence, the leadership believes that the ongoing political participation mechanism holds the country in good stead and ensures greater national stability and security, as well as progress for its people.

At the core of this belief is the fact that the UAE has a growing population of vibrant educated youth, including women who are looking to play a role in the country’s development. This means that channels need to be developed for them to be involved politically.

To meet this and other aspirations, several innovative steps were introduced this year. One, the size of the government-determined electoral college, comprising voters, was increased to about 2,24,000, which is nearly half the eligible voting population in a country of less than a million Emiratis (about 8.5 of the 9.5 million people living in the UAE are expatriates, which is an unmatched proportion of foreign-local population in the world).

In comparison, about 6,500 and 1,35,000 people voted in the 2006 and 2011 elections, respectively. Sixty-seven per cent of this year’s electorate was below 40 years of age, reflecting the focus on youth, and women comprised 48 per cent.

Two, the polls were conducted in three phases to maximise the opportunity and possibility of voting. The first phase allowed UAE citizens outside the country to vote in the embassies abroad. The second phase included advance voting for three days and the final voting.

Three, under the single non-transferable voting system, voters could choose only one candidate, unlike the previous practice of casting preferential votes for two or more candidates, depending on number of seats being contested in an emirate, which encouraged groupism.

Four, voting was completely electronic without any paper trail that was used as a back-up plan last time. And, finally, the number of polling centres were increased from 13 to 36 to ensure better turnout.

But, in a reflection of the success of the welfare mechanism that is in place, satisfaction with the existing political leadership, limited political culture and awareness, and inadequate powers for the FNC, the voter turnout was 35 per cent, up from 28 per cent last time. While in percentage terms, this is only seven points better, the number of voters was twice as many as in 2011.

Nominating women

Further, though only one woman MP was elected, the government is expected to continue the practice of nominating several others to ensure reasonable women’s representation in the FNC. Together, the election encouraged active community participation in the selection of individuals capable of conveying the concerns of the citizens to government entities. For the voters too, this was an opportunity to perform a “national duty”, contributing to the comprehensive development of the UAE and take forward the FNC empowerment process.

For the critics, according to 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, “…governments cannot be constructed by premeditated design…They are not made, but grow, from the nature and life of that people: a product of their habits, instincts, and unconscious wants and desires, scarcely at all of their deliberate purposes.”

Applying this to the UAE would mean that national identities, state and the ruling families are inseparable. The ruling families have created the country, preserved it, and rewritten their history through phenomenal development which necessitates maintaining of the existing political structures, even as progressive innovations are attempted. Elections, therefore, are a testimony to the high degree of mutual trust between rulers and the citizens.

The rationale for gradual political change is conditioned partly by the lack of demand from below (people) and the troubled political experiences witnessed in the region – Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, among others. It has also evolved from the understanding that one-shoe-fits-all system of governance does not work in the UAE.

Overall, it appears that elections are a strategy for the future. Gradually introducing political modernisation with an eye on the regional environment as well as the domestic context, fits into the UAE model of steady and moderated growth. The logic is that there is no universal model for good governance, and each country must perfect its own system and provide sustainable solutions. Ultimately, elections have become a means to an end and not an end in itself.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and Honorary Fellow, University of Exeter, UK)

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