Voters chosen by the rulers of the United Arab Emirates cast their ballots on Saturday in only the second-ever polls to elect half of the members of the advisory Federal National Council.
Men in traditional Emirati white gowns and women wearing black abaya cloaks trickled into a large polling centre at a conventions complex in Dubai.
Numbers of voters increased during the day, and the election committee announced extending the voting time by one hour until 8:00 pm (1600 GMT).
Voters chose their preferred candidates using electronic terminals in semi-private booths, before depositing the printed out votes in transparent boxes.
Around 129,000 Emirati citizens are eligible to elect 20 representatives out of 450 candidates, including some 85 women, in 13 voting centres across the Gulf state whose leadership has promised gradual political participation.
The size of the electorate has been significantly boosted from only 6,600 voters in 2006. That was when the first elections were held since the FNC’s formation in 1972, a year after independence from Britain.
Candidates must come from the lists of voters named by the respective rulers of each of the seven emirates comprising the UAE federation.
The emirates’ rulers appoint the remainder of FNC members.
The council has no legislative powers and acts merely as an advisory board to the Federal Supreme Council, the country’s highest governing body, made up of the emirates’ rulers.
The FNC cannot overturn or block laws or decrees issued and ratified by the Supreme Council.
“The role of the council now is good. They discuss problems and voice the complaints of the people,” said student Tareq Mohammed, 21, who was voting for the first time, arguing that vesting the FNC with more powers was not needed.
“I voted for those close to my area and that I feel can do something for us, and those who have programmes for the youth,” he added.
Policewoman Huda Sweidan said she trusted the rulers in their choice for appointed FNC members, appearing undisturbed by having the right to elect only half of the representatives of her emirate.
“The rulers know whom to choose,” she said after voting.
Voters also appeared to accept not yet having universal suffrage, believing in the government’s phased-out approach to widening political participation.
“I believe in the gradual process,” said government employee Ahmed Ismail, 29.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed Al-Maktoum, UAE vice president, prime minister and the ruler of Dubai, said Saturday his country will continue widening political participation at its own pace.
“We are going on with this process without any haste and we will work as a leadership to widen the powers of the FNC … We will continue strengthening democracy,” he said as he inspected a polling centre in Dubai.
Despite the wave of pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world as people demand a say in running their countries, the UAE appears not to be under any internal pressure to rush into speedy democratisation.
The rich nation provides most of its native population of some 950,000 people — a minority in its foreign-dominated total population — with a comfortable lifestyle and cradle-to-grave care.
In March, some 130 intellectuals and activists petitioned President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahayan to introduce universal suffrage and empower the FNC with legislative and regulatory prerogatives.
Five activists are being tried on charges of insulting the leadership and opposing the government system, among other charges. They pleaded not guilty.
In addition to the capital Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the UAE comprises the emirates of Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Qaiwain.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai are assigned eight seats each in the FNC, compared with six each for Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah and four each for the smaller emirates of Ajman, Fujairah and Umm al-Qaiwain.