Reflections on the First Shura Council Elections in Qatar
On October 2, 2021, Qatar held its first Shura Council (SC) elections, a new milestone in broadening the political representation and strengthening the governmental institutions in the gas-rich Gulf country. The Qatari constitution approved in a 2003 referendum calls for the elections of the legislative branch of the government, the Shura Council. Yet, due to several reasons, primarily the unstable regional environment, the government delayed this constitutional entitlement several times until last year.
In November 2020, the Emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, decided to hold the first-ever Shura Council Elections. The decision was taken while Doha was still under a blockade from the quartet (Saudi Arabi, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt), which indicates that this measure was also meant to strengthen the state-people relation in the face of foreign challenges.
The SC comprises 45 seats, 15 of which are appointed by the Emir. It assumes the legislative power, approves the State's public policy and the budget, and oversees the executive power. Theoretically speaking, the SC can overrule the Emir's disapproval of a bill with the condition of securing two-thirds of the votes. It can also relieve members of the executive branch of the government from their duty if two-thirds of the SC vote of no confidence. However, the SC seems to have no significant role in the country's defence, security, economic, and investment policy.
Two hundred thirty-three candidates run for the historic elections in 30 districts, including 26 females in 16 districts, a relatively small number compared to the total number of the candidates. According to the interior ministry, the elections closed with a 63.5% turnout. The high percentage of voter participation in the first SC election can be understood as a reflection of the citizens' eagerness for political involvement, participation, and shaping the state policies that touch their lives. However, the list of winners shows that the majority are above the average age of the Qataris. Many of them served in different governmental posts before retirement, and some of them had business and academic backgrounds.
One noticeable outcome of the first SC elections in the country is the lack of female representation. Out of the 26 qualified female candidates who ran for the SC elections, zero female candidates won. Before the elections, there has been some debate between the Qatari elites on whether females should be given a quota in advance to encourage female representation. Those who supported this idea argued that it is hard for females to compete in an environment that is heavily shaped against their interests no matter how much they are qualified vis-à-vis a male candidate, especially with the tribal constraints.
Those who disagree with this idea argue that such "positive" discrimination in favour of the female would question the qualifications of the female candidates vis-à-vis the male candidates. They believe that it would also constitute an interference in the elections and a violation of the national constitution, which ensures the equality of opportunity for all citizens under Articles 19, 34, and 35.
Given the Emir's right to appoint 15 out of the 45 members of the SC, observers anticipated he would use his powers to balance the outcome heavily dependent on the tribal and family orientation. On October 14, the Emir appointed 15 members, including two female members. Although less than what some hoped, one of the selected two females, Hamda bent Hassan al Sulaiti, was elected as a deputy speaker of the SC.
Five days later, the Emir reshuffled the government by changing 13 ministers and expanding the ministerial portfolio from 14 to 18. Since this measure came following the SC elections was understood as a way to compensate for the shortcomings of the SC representation. The Emir expanded the female representation in the cabinet from one to three. Ministry of Education and Higher Education, and Ministry of Social Development and family are now led by female ministers. This measure can be a hint at where the focus of the State on reforms will be during the coming period.
In his speech at the opening session of the new SC On October 26, the Emir touched upon critical issues such as Tribalism and citizenship. He warned that hateful intolerance, whether tribal or otherwise, could be manipulated and used to subvert national unity. Amid the 2017 Gulf crisis, Qatar witnessed an unprecedented level of patriotism and unity among its people amid the pressure of its neighbours to change its foreign policy behaviour, manipulate its social composition, and topple its Emir.
Accordingly, the citizenship issue gained momentum in the last few years. During the 2017-Gulf crisis, the government gained first-hand experience on how the citizenship issue can empower its capacity, or contrary to that, hinder its ability in times of crisis if left unsolved. The SC's electoral law published in the Official Gazette last August stirred debate. One article concerning nationality and citizenship law sparked tension. It triggered rare political protests as it created a distinction between citizens who have "original" nationality and those who acquired it later.
Concerning naturalized citizens, the law says that they can vote only if their grandfathers are Qataris and were born in Qatar. This problem had roots in the 2005 Nationality law that affects some tribal connections, especially the Al-Murra tribe, hence the tribal tension. Many observers considered the brief protest a setback compared to the 2017 moment. Protestors demanded to change the electoral law; however, amending it would require an active SC.
Additionally, amending the law under pressure would have been understood as a sign of weakness for the authorities. It would have set a precedent that could be recalled in times of crisis. Many Qataris acknowledged that citizens have the right to criticise or object to the law but demanded that the objection be processed conveniently and according to the Qatari tradition.
Following the elections of the new SC, the Emir stressed that citizenship is not purely a legal issue rather a matter of belonging, loyalty, and duty. The Emir took the initiative and instructed the cabinet to prepare the legal amendment to promote equal Qatari citizenship. This measure is meant to tell Qataris that there is always a process they need to follow. They have to be patient while their country is advancing in the grey zone of deepening public participation in political matters.
While the SC election will certainly not represent a shift towards a western democracy style, it is a milestone in deepening the political representation. Many Qataris, including the officials, are aware that this is a first-time historical experience; hence the shortcomings are expected, and time is needed for this experience to mature. While no doubt advancing in this path will further boost Qatar's soft power ahead of the long-awaited World Cup in 2022, it remains to be seen whether this experience will create some unforeseen challenges in the future.