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The Shura Council eighth-term elections in the Sultanate of Oman, held on Sunday 25 October 2015, brought nothing new. Tribal alliances and “political money” played a significant role in setting up the next four years of parliamentary life in this Gulf country. Omani elections over the past eight years have shown that women are mostly excluded from political participation in the largely patriarchal society.
The bright side of these elections, though, was the Omani people’s will to bring new faces into the Shura Council. These new members, most of them are well educated, are expected to put to use the parliamentary tools that are in existence. The election results announced by the Higher Committee for Election showed that more than 70 per cent of elected members are new and that some of them were young people.
The Higher Committee for Election announced the final results on 26 October 2015, reporting that voter turnout was 56 per cent of eligible voters and that the electoral process went peacefully, without irregularities.
According to the election committee’s results, the number of eligible voters officially amounted to 612,000, while 674 candidates, including 21 women, ran in 61 provinces and competed for 85 seats on the Shura Council.
A group of Omani feminists launched a campaign on social media and on the ground, using the Arabic hashtag #صوتي_للمرأة (A Voice for Women). According to many Twitter and Facebook users, the outcome of the elections was frustrating for women, because only one woman, Nimah Busaidi, from Sabt Province, won a seat. Busaidi is now serving a second term as a member of parliament. Omani journalist Fatima Arimi, in a tweet she nervously posted following the announcement of the election results, called for taking measures necessary to vote women onto the Shura Council for the next term.
Number of Women Candidates declines in Elections for the Eighth Term
A quick analysis of this election shows diminished enthusiasm for competing in elections, with only 459 candidates running, compared to 1133 during the previous election, four years ago. The number of women who ran in these elections dropped to 56, compared to 77 in the previous election. Although Oman was the first Gulf country to allow women to run for election, in 1994, only two seats went to women in all the previous elections after 1994, and that dropped even further, to one seat, during the previous two elections (for the terms 2007-2011 and 2011-2015).
Observers believe that the number of candidates in the Shura Council elections dropped for several reasons, especially because of the council’s limited legislative and oversight powers and the executive authority’s control of decision-making in the country, which makes the Shura Council an “advisory” body which can express only non-binding opinions. In addition, weak tribal and family relations, as well as the illegal buying of votes, make it difficult for effective new candidates to win seats on the council.
A new issue arose this year. The Shura Council’s election committee excluded several candidates, including current Council members, from the lists of candidates without providing convincing justification, which triggered widespread criticism by intellectuals and activists on social media. According to the Omani electronic newspaper al-Balad, Omani Twitter subscribers created the Arabic hashtag#اقصاء_مرشحي_الشورى on which they posted the names of some candidates who were prohibited from running in the Shura Council elections and called for respecting national and Shura Council election laws. They also demanded explanations for the exclusion of some candidates from the lists, asserting that the council’s election committee committed a flagrant violation of the statute, specifically, Article 58, Paragraph 10, and Article 34 of the Shura Council election law, by removing candidates from the list without giving a legal explanation (seen as a government’s pre selecting acts).
2011 Legislative Reforms
Legislative reforms were passed in 2011, following popular protests in Oman, influenced by the so-called Arab Spring; the reforms included granting wider legislative and regulatory powers to the Shura Council through the first amendment made to the constitution since its drafting in 1996. Some Omanis, however, viewed such reforms as merely an attempt to mollify an angry population.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said took further steps in 2011 to strengthen the partnership between the Shura Council (which represents the people) and the government, when he appointed as ministers, for the first time, seven elected members of the Shura Council, a move that many expected to encourage certain groups, especially educated people and technocrats, to run in the eighth-term election, because winning a seat on the Shura Council could open the door to decision-making positions in the government. However, the small number of candidates running for election in this term raises many questions about the relationship between society and the government on the one hand and between individuals and their pursuit of public office on the other hand.
By contrast, some Omanis see the elections and the people’s participation in their country’s democratic process as a step in the right direction, albeit a gradual one, and that these elections represent an advanced form of the concept of shura (Arabic, “consultation”) that has been an element of the Abadi doctrine since 751 CE. What distinguishes Abadis from other Muslim sects is that the people rule through selected scholars and wise people who elect the ruler/imam and who discharge any ruler breaches the Sharia and infringes on the people’s rights. Emirati researcher Mohammed Obaid Ghobash, in his book Oman: Islamic Democracy, Traditions of Governance and Modern Political History, believes that the Omanis were the first people to establish an Islamic democracy.
Shura Council: Gradual Evolution
Since its inception in 1991, the Omani Shura Council has gone through a gradual evolution. The council’s first term election (1991-1994) confined the right to vote to tribal leaders and dignitaries and whomever the tribal leaders nominated to be part of the elite. Meanwhile, the right to candidacy was limited to those in government and to influential tribal figures. In the first-term election, citizens elected four candidates, and the government chose two of them, regardless of the number of votes garnered by each candidate.
In the second-term election (1994-1997), the electoral process moved a step forward by expanding the circle of groups eligible to vote and run for election, while reducing the role played by the tribal leaders. Also, for the first time, each province with a population of more than 30,000 was given the right to elect four candidates, two of them selected by the government. In a state with a population under 30,000, the people were allowed to elect two candidates, of whom the government would select one, regardless of who won the most votes. The third- and fourth- term election (1997-2000 and 2000-2003) saw little change change, except for what seemed to be the government’s desire to advance the democratic experience. In the fifth-term election (2003-2007), the country experienced, for the first time, direct secret balloting; the government refrained from selecting members of the Shura Council, and citizens aged 21 and over became eligible to vote.
In June 2004, Sultan Qaboos issued Royal Decree 71/2004, amending certain provisions in the Shura Council’s by-laws. Such amendments were seen as a prelude to making the Shura Council an institution with parliamentary legislative and regulatory powers. Article 60 of the council’s by-laws states that “the government shall refer five-year development plans and general budgets to the Shura Council sufficiently in advance of embarking on the accreditation procedures.”