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UAE holds its second election for advisory body

Polls opened on Saturday for the second election in the United Arab Emirates, where a fraction of the population will vote for an advisory council, as the Gulf Arab state tries to forge closer links between the rulers and the people.

September 24, 2011 2:03 by

Half of the seats in the 40-seat Federal National Council (FNC) are being contested by 468 candidates seeking the votes of the 129,000-strong eligible electorate — just 12 percent of Emirati nationals in the world’s No. 3 oil exporter.

“I voted for people that I know, for those who advocate for the rights of the citizens,” said Ahmed al-Janahi, 54, a marine biologist at the Ministry of Environment.

The vote is an attempt by the rulers of the seven emirates to gradually introduce representation. The 20 other members of the council are directly appointed and the body only has advisory powers.

“We are taking steady steps,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s vice president and ruler of Dubai, told reporters as he toured a polling station. “By God’s will, we will continue progress and (expand) the powers of the Federal National Council.”

Former FNC members have called on the UAE government to grant the assembly more powers and have the entire council elected.

In a partial concession, the government increased the number of citizens entitled to vote to 129,000, nearly 20 times more than those who voted in the country’s first elections in 2006. It has not made clear how the voters or candidates were chosen.

On Saturday morning, hundreds of people lined up at Dubai World Trade Centre’s polling station to cast their ballots, one of 13 spread across the small country.

Home to business hub Dubai and major oil producer Abu Dhabi, the small Gulf country has been virtually untouched by the Arab Spring, which saw heads of states in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya toppled.

In the run-up to elections, the government held seminars teaching candidates about the rules of campaigning, but many still appear to lack a basic understanding of the FNC’s constitutional powers. Some promised to introduce new legislation, even though only government ministries are allowed to do so.

Another key issue is the female vote. Some 85 women are standing for office (and others are part of the voter pool), unlike in neighbouring Saudi Arabia where they are shut out of municipal elections.

Fathiya al-Khamiri, a Dubai candidate, said she voted for three women and one man but wondered about the prospects of women winning a seat in the assembly.

“This sea of white-clad men,” she said referring to dozens of Emirati men dressed in traditional white robes outside the polling station. “I am even more concerned now.”

Sheikh Mohammed spoke favourably of women candidates as he spoke to former FNC member Maysa Ghadeer.

“I’ve said in the past that women are the soul of the place and today I say that women are the place of the soul of the homeland,” he said.

The assembly’s first session will be held in October. (By Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Reed Stevenson and Matthew Jones)

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