Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shura Elections

This past Saturday, Oman's 6th Majis A'Shura council was elected for the 2008-2011 term. 631 candidates competed for 84 seats representing 61 wilayas (provinces) in Oman's consultative council (wilayas that have population of over 30,000 get two seats). 388,683 Omani citizens had registered to vote and of that number it is said that 63% showed up to vote, making it the highest voter turn out in Oman's short electoral history. Significantly, it is believed that more women than men participated in the election. However, despite the higher participation, and the fact there were 21 female candidates competing in the election, not one succeeded in winning a seat. In fact, the two female Shura members of the present council both lost their bids for re-election.

I did not vote in this election. It wasn't because of political dissent or anything like that. I hadn't register to vote in the past elections because I wasn't sure that any of the candidates running for my area were worthy of my vote. This time, I was planning to vote but I never got around to going to the Wali's office to register. Was I just plain lazy or was it apathy on my part? A bit of both I guess. More importantly, I think it's because I have no idea what it is that the Majlis A'Shura does. I don't know what the members do. I don't even know if they actually meet on a regular basis or only on the days when they are shown on TV questioning ministers, which I think only happens once per minister per year. I'm quite sure that despite the fact that the elected members aren't allowed by law to have full time jobs, they don't have offices or staff. I blame my lack of knowledge on the Shura Council and its activities entirely on our press. It is their lack of initiative and lack of coverage. We are never informed of what the council does except in generic articles that only tell us that a session took place without informing us what was actually discussed.

I understand that the Shura council has more powers than what is actually been exercises by its members in the past. It can question ministers and advise the government on economic and social issues, but cannot legislate law or get involved in defence or foreign policy. According to an article by Rafiah Al Talei which was forwarded to me by email:
Article 29 of the Omani law regulating the appointed upper house (the
59-member State Council) and elected Shura Council specifies the
powers of each body. The Shura Council's powers include reviewing
legislation drafted by government ministries and passing them on to
the State Council with recommendations, as well as submitting
proposals for social and economic legislation. The Shura Council may
also provide feedback on government initiatives, propose development
projects, and participate in raising citizens' awareness of the
country's development goals and government efforts in that regard.
Members may give opinions on subjects on which the sultan seeks the
council's input, and look into matters related to public services and
I consider myself to be politically astute, for the most part, but on the day after the election an expatriate who is new to Oman asked me some questions about the representation system and I got totally lost and confused while trying to answer. Like for example, how is a Shura member's role different from that of the government appointed wali? If you as a citizen have a grievance with the government, when do you go to your elected council member and when do you go to the wali? And why would going to the council member be any good when s/he is an individual working on his/her own from their own house without a dedicated office or staff to help in getting the requirements of the constituents done?

According to the same article quoted above:

many Omanis believe that in reality the Shura Council's role has been
limited to looking into public services. And even for this council members
do not receive credit, as government ministers constantly
point out that development in public services and infrastructure is a result of the government's vision and plans rather than initiatives by council members.

Some Shura Council members are frustrated by the lack of appreciation from either the public or the government. Shura Council member Rahila bint Amir bin Sultan al-Riyami stated on several occasions that members do not receive due credit for their work, and asserted that the government actually does accept and consider suggestions and proposals of council members. Media coverage of recent council deliberations, however, revealed little government willingness to accept members' proposals and amendments to upcoming laws.
There's been a lot of discussion, since the start of the election process about encouraging voters not to just vote along tribal and family lines but to vote for the best candidate. For the first time ever the candidates were allowed to advertise and campaign, but I think they were limited in what they can write in their ads because all of them had the same theme: big mug shot, name of candidate and which wilaya he was competing for, and a brief two or three lines with his CV highlights. Nothing more. What was one candidate offering over the others? What would I gain by voting for Mr. X over Mr Y, other than Mr. X has a better education than Mr. Y?

I have to admit that if I had actually voted, I'd have probably towed the line and voted along with my community for our candidate, who actually won in his constituency. It's not just because the guy is a PhD and currently the vice-president of the Central Bank of Oman. But, in the end when it comes down to it, I am part of a minority. My community, the lawatia, is probably the smallest Omani ethnic group. I believe that it is important for my community to have a voice in the council. So yes, I'd have gone along with my "tribe". However, the lawatia at least are organized so they got together and decided they would all give their voice to their best candidate and after discussions and debates chose him. In fact their other candidates pulled out of the race to clear the way for him.

By the way, although the law says that a person who is voted to be a member of the council has to quit his job, I understand that the pay isn't that good. I asked around and heard that it's probably in the 1000 rial range, no higher than 1200 per month. Ok, that's not something to spit at, but still it's what a graduate with a good job would expect to get by the time he's a junior or mid level manager. It's not something you'd quit your job for unless you don't have the potential to get to that level in the first place or else you are independently better off. This could be a significant limiting factor for the quality of candidates.


Arabian Princess said...

you dont have to quit your job is you are working for the private sector, only government emplpoyees are asked to quite thier jobs.

I really respected what Lawatia did when choosing thier candidate .. if every willaya did that, we would definatly have a better chance at choosing a prominante and strong candidates in the majlis.(and you cant call Lawatis minority, one of the most powerful ministers is a lawati ;) )

Anonymous said...

I didn't vote and was not interested to, only I wanted to register to follow the trend (and because some people are saying that voting will show good in my CV, I don't know how). Yet I didn't register,

Because I don't see a point of the shora representative questioning a minister. What after the questioning and after the whole scene is done. I don't know!

Amjad said...

Very good point you mentioned there about the Lawati community having a voice in the Shura Council!

Anonymous said...

wow! nice rationalization of the lawatia vote.

The country will be really served, if other minorities/communities/tribes also join in and just elect their own.

This is how merit is killed.

Blue Chi said...

The majority of all the votes for the Shura council are done in the same way as the Lawatia have done, which is not necessarily a good thing. The eldest members of the tribe select among themselves the person to nominate himself for the council, the rest of the tribe do not necessarily have a say on the issue.

I do not think that ethnicity in Oman rules the voting of Shura council as much as families do. For example, I do not think that Lawatis from all around Oman decide to vote for a single person, but 'families' (scaled-down tribes) do Muscati labeled the group from which the nominee was selected as an ethnic group, a tribe, and a community, which I think is essential a family association.

I did not vote because I do not see how a Shura Council could ever make a change that I would feel personally in my daily life.

muscati said...

Contrary to popular belief, lawatia are not all related to each other. They are a group of people who formed a community by living together in the same area while having a common origin and a common religious sect. While Oman is majorily sunni and then ibadhi, here is group which is shi3i. And while even other ethnic groups in Oman are relatively large in number, like the balushis for example, lawatia probably are less than 1% of Oman's population. And yet economically, yes while it would be wrong to say they're all well off financially, it's true that as a whole, the lawatia community is significant to Oman due to their standing as leading merchants in the country.

And despite what AP said about one of the leading ministers being lawatia (I assume you are referring to the minister of commerce), having a voice on the council of ministers is different from having a voice in the shura council.

Anonymous said...

Since the elections, there was much talk about how women candidates took their first downfall and how women didn't use the opportunity given to them well and how women voters didn't support their own in these elections in spite of the large turn out of female voters.. What do you guys think?

I do think that women have been given the opportunity but some of the candidates were vertually unheard of in the few weeks preceeding the elections and have had no presence in society to allow those voting to weigh their merits. I think women vote for who they believe would serve them better, it doesn't necessarily mean it should be another woman. On the other hand, woman candidates need the vote of the male population of Oman. Has the time come for Omani men to trust being led/served by Omani female council members?

Your thoughts please..

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