Doha, Qatar, Oct 2 – Qatar wrapped up its first legislative election Saturday with reports of a solid turnout even though the vote is not expected to shift power away from the emir.
The vote is for 30 members of the 45-strong Shura Council, a body with limited powers that was previously appointed by the emir as an advisory chamber.
The count got underway straight after the 1500 GMT close of polls. Results are expected before 2000 GMT.
More than a third of the 101 candidates dropped out of the race by Saturday afternoon, state television reported, apparently to support rival candidates.
“Where candidates realised that they have no shot to win a seat, they decided to endorse other candidates,” said King’s College London associate professor Andreas Krieg.
After the withdrawals, there were 183 candidates in contention for the 30 elected seats.
The remaining 15 will be appointed by the emir although it is not known when they will be announced, or when the council will meet.
Average turnout was 44.3 percent in the 29 constituencies that had more than one candidate, state television reported, significantly higher than at 2019’s municipal elections at which fewer than one in 10 of those eligible turned out.
Across the Gulf emirate, orderly queues of Qataris in national dress formed inside polling stations, mostly schools and sports halls, throughout the day.
In the 17th district, a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz and a pearl white Rolls Royce SUV dropped off female voters at a primary school. Women were a majority among the steady stream of those casting ballots there at lunchtime.
Observers say the repeatedly delayed decision to hold the election comes with Qatar under heightened scrutiny as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.
– All-powerful emir –
Former US ambassador to Qatar Susan Ziadeh said Qatar was “looking to see how it enhances its position on the world stage” which had led it to organise the polls ahead of 2022.
“They have the World Cup. That will place them on the international stage once again,” she said.
The Shura will be allowed to propose legislation, approve the budget and recall ministers. But the emir, all-powerful in the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, will wield a veto.
“At the start of the day, I heard many people say they wouldn’t vote because there will be no change, but we saw many people,” said voter Sultan Abdullah al-Kuwari. “This is a good omen that there will be change.”
In the working class Najma suburb, candidates and voters paused for afternoon prayers on mats that had been set up inside the 10th district polling station which, like all others, was segregated by gender.
Beyond single-candidate town hall meetings, posters and ads, the country’s electoral exercise has been limited, with no change of government possible and political parties outlawed.
Candidates uniformly avoided debate about Qatar’s foreign policy or status as a monarchy, instead focussing on social issues.
– ‘Optics’ –
All candidates had to be approved by the powerful interior ministry and just one in 10 of the originally confirmed candidates were women.
Most of Qatar’s 2.5 million residents are foreigners, ineligible to vote.
Candidates stood in electoral divisions linked to where their family or tribe was based in the 1930s, using data compiled by the then-British authorities.
Diplomatic sources suggest families and tribes had already conducted internal ballots to determine who would be elected for their constituencies, which analysts say is a consequence of not having political parties.
“Voting must be for the right person… and not by the degree of kinship or family name,” said voter Abdullah Ahmed Saleh al-Mahri al-Mohannadi, 52, a legal consultant.
Qataris number about 333,000, but only descendants of those who were citizens in 1930 were eligible to vote and stand, disqualifying members of families naturalised since then.
Some members of the sizeable Al-Murrah tribe were among those excluded from the electoral process, sparking a fierce debate online and isolated protests.
“I think sadly (the election) is done for the optics rather than a genuine desire for a more transparent and fairer process,” said one young Qatari, who did not vote and declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the election.