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      It's an Election, but Not as You Know it: Qataris Go to the Polls

      It's an Election, but Not as You Know it: Qataris Go to the Polls It's an Election, but Not as You Know it: Qataris Go to the Polls It's an Election, but Not as You Know it: Qataris Go to the Polls
      Photo by Osama Faisal/AP

      Middle East

      It's an Election, but Not as You Know it: Qataris Go to the Polls

      By John Beck

      Qataris will vote in a national election on Wednesday for the fifth time ever — but democracy is still a long way off.

      Just 10 percent of Qatari citizens — who only represent 10 percent of the total population, with expats and foreign laborers forming the rest — are registered to vote, and turnout has been low since elections began in 1999. 

      Meanwhile, the Municipal Council members who Qataris are electing will have very little real power. The 29-seat body can make recommendations, but is restricted to an advisory role and cannot make legislation. That power belongs to the monarch, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who is currently head of both state and government, and the advisory Shura Council, whose members are handpicked by influential Qatari families.

      The population voted in a referendum in 2003 to turn Qatar into a constitutional monarchy with a directly-elected legislative body, but human rights groups say no real progress has been made towards that purported goal.

      The council will also fail to represent the population as a whole, with just five female candidates out of the 118 who are running. That's despite the authorities supposedly encouraging women to take part in the electoral process, both at the ballot box and by running for a seat. Just one female candidate was elected in the 2011 election.

      "Women remained unable to fully exercise their human rights due to barriers in law, policy and practice," Amnesty International said about Qatar in its 2014/15 annual report. The rights group highlighted a lack of laws directly criminalizing domestic violence and personal status laws that favour men in marriage, divorce, nationality and freedom of movement.

      Freedom of expression is also tightly controlled, exemplified in cases such as poet Mohammed al-Ajami, also known as Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb, who is currently serving a 15-year sentence for writing and reciting poems deemed offensive to the state and the Emir.

      A cybercrime law introduced in September criminalizes the dissemination of "false" news and the online publication of content deemed harmful to Qatar's "social values" or national interests. 

      Qatar, which has the highest per-capita income in the world, has invested large sums outside its borders in recent years, seemingly in an effort to expand its influence on the global stage. This has included backing Arab Spring uprisings, despite it having no real semblance back home. 

      At least 1.4 million of the country's 2.1 million current residents are foreign laborers, who make up 99 percent of the private sector workforce. Most are subject to the "kafala" employment system, under which the visa and residency status of migrant workers are dependent on the sponsorship of a specific employer, who can stop them from leaving the country or switching jobs.  

      The kafala system, which is used by all Gulf states apart from Iraq, has been regularly and forcefully condemned internationally, and has come under increasing scrutiny since the December 2010 announcement Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup. Human rights groups and media outlets have documented the widespread and systematic abuse of foreign workers there, although officials have indicated that the system could be abolished by the end of 2015.

      Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck

      Topics: middle east, qatar, democracy, politics

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