Elections: The Emirates Way

More important than the elections is establishing an electoral culture, and this cannot be fulfilled through spectators. It has to be achieved through actual participation, not necessarily in the highest public domain; it could start at the level of local or municipal councils

Dr Ebtisam Al-Kitbi
Assistant professor of political science
UAE University

The next legislative session of the Federal National Council (FNC) represents a pivotal stage in the history of the UAE. It is one of the most important sessions in terms of its nature and the tasks it has outlined. The key task is expanding its authority from the consultative to the legislative domain, activating its supervisory role in terms of parliamentary practices such as questioning, forming investigation committees, and casting a vote of no-confidence against the government, in addition to expanding the range of membership. All these demonstrate the importance of the council, as well as its content and structure, which must subsume and represent the different groups of the social, intellectual and political spectrum. Choosing this kind of council must be based on quality and not quantity. The next council must indeed be different from those that have prevailed until now, both in terms of its essence and content, and not merely in form.

Ultimately, elections are a means and not an end; they are one of the mechanisms of democracy with freedom, justice and equality as the props. Measuring the extent of democracy in a society finally depends on the degree to which its general principles are practiced and applied. This constitutes the basic fabric of any democratic system, either on the part of the citizens or officials. Further, the sound pillars of a real democratic system must be built on:

* Pluralism -- in terms of the freedom and legality of diverse viewpoints, and the freedom to form political parties to express the different interests of society;

* Equality -- which subsumes granting citizens the same rights and not discriminating between them on the basis of religion, ethnic origin, color, gender or political allegiance; all citizens are equal with regard to rights and duties;

* Participation -- guaranteeing citizens' rights to participate in the different spheres of social, political and civil life;

* Freedom of expression -- guaranteeing the liberty of expressing viewpoints and giving minorities the opportunity to express their opinions and ensuring freedom of the press;

* Elections -- holding polls at all levels and for all groups, and ensuring that they are public, adhering to a secret ballot, fair and periodic;

* Transparency and accountability -- devise ways to enable people to know what transpires in the state in a manner that empowers them to hold officials in different spheres and at different levels accountable;

* Combating corruption -- to prevent decision-makers from abusing power;

* Respect for law and the Constitution -- all citizens are equal before the law; every individual must respect the law and be subject to its rules in the same measure as others;

* Control over the government -- constitutional constraints on the government's work must be devised; and so is the need for a mechanism to supervise the work of the different authorities of the state;

* Separation of power -- among the legislative, executive and judicial branches, as well as guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary;

* Respect for human rights -- in accordance with international human charters and customs.

The process of conducting elections is linked to three primary issues -- first, the range of positions open to election; second, determining who has the right to vote; and third, the overall turnout of voters on polling day.

One of the most important characteristics of the electoral system is its range of positions open to election. The greater the number of positions subject to competitive elections, the more democratic a political system is. Determining who is eligible to vote is just as important; at present, in most democracies, the constitutional right to vote extends to all citizens who are 18 years old and above.

Notwithstanding the theoretical framework of elections, the important factor is the result of the process, and not the form in which the elections are held. The moot question is: does the outcome reflect the different intellectual, social, economic and political spectrum, or does it institute the control of the elite belonging to any of these groups.

One of the most important characteristics of the electoral system is its range of positions open to election. The greater the number of positions subject to competitive elections, the more democratic a political system is. Determining who is eligible to vote is just as important

The announcement of the names of the nominees for the FNC elections in December has raised questions and created a feeling of bitterness and mistrust. In the past, such reactions did not come to the fore because selecting and ignoring FNC members was not the concern of the ordinary people. But the advertisement for the upcoming elections, and the accompanying media coverage, has been a negative factor. It has increased ambiguities instead of clarifying the issues. It succeeded in motivating people to participate in the elections, which everyone thought they were somehow a part of, till they realized that it was the privilege of only 6,689 people, representing 0.08 percent of the total UAE citizens. The remaining citizens have been offered seats reserved for spectators, without knowing why they have been excluded.

Instead of establishing a political consciousness that reflects the content of Article 25 of Chapter III of the UAE Constitution -- which addresses public rights and duties and stipulates that "all individuals are equal before the law, and there is no distinction between the citizens of the Federation on the basis of origin, creed, or social position" -- distinction has been made and inequality consolidated in a manner that has made the coming electoral process something of a Spartan Paradigm.

What is more important than the elections themselves is establishing an electoral culture, and this cannot be fulfilled through spectators. It has to be achieved through actual participation, not necessarily in the highest public domain; it could start at the level of local or municipal councils, which could form the basis from which the FNC members can be chosen by local authorities. Only this process will consolidate the principle of people's choice and a flavor of untainted democracy will be conferred on the electoral scene.

There is no doubt that any experiment will involve shortcomings and mistakes in the beginning. However, this is a historic opportunity for the concerned authorities to present the government with election models that reflect the views of reformist groups of the highest caliber. Only these will reflect the true aspirations of the people and make a qualitative change that will guarantee the UAE a high position on the scale of freedom and democracy.