Qatar’s first legislative elections are held.

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Qataris will go to the polls on Saturday to elect two-thirds of the advisory Shura Council in the Gulf Arab state’s first legislative elections, a vote that has sparked domestic debate about electoral inclusion and citizenship.

Thirty members of the 45-member Council will be elected, while the remaining 15 will be appointed by the ruling emir. The Council will have legislative authority and will approve general state policies and the budget.

The Council has no authority over the executive bodies that set defence, security, economic, and investment policy for the small but wealthy gas producer that prohibits political parties.

The legislative polls, approved in a 2003 constitutional referendum, come ahead of Doha hosting the World Cup soccer tournament next year. Critics have said voting eligibility is too narrow.

Eighteen women are standing from among around 183 candidates hoping to be elected at polling stations across 30 districts in the country, which has for several years held municipal elections.

Campaigning has taken place on social media, community meetings and roadside billboards.

The election indicates Qatar’s ruling al-Thani family is “taking seriously the idea of symbolically sharing power, but also effectively sharing power institutionally with other Qatari tribal groups,” said Allen Fromherz, director of Georgia State University’s Middle East Studies Center.

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Qatar’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani last month described the vote as a new “experiment” and said the Council cannot be expected from the first year to have the “full role of any parliament”.

Kuwait is currently the only Gulf monarchy to give substantial powers to an elected parliament though ultimate decision-making rests with the ruler, as in neighbouring states.

The huge number of foreign workers in Qatar, the world’s top liquefied natural gas producer, means nationals make up only 10% of the population of 2.8 million, and even then not all Qataris are eligible to vote.

The polls have stirred tribal sensitivities after some members of a main tribe found themselves ineligible to vote under a law restricting voting to Qataris whose family was present in the country before 1930.

The foreign minister has said there is a “clear process” for the electoral law to be reviewed by the next Shura Council.

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“The Qatari leadership has proceeded cautiously, restricting participation in significant ways and maintaining important controls over the political debate and outcomes,” said Kristin Smith Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute, Washington.

But popular politics is unpredictable, she said. “Over time Qataris may grow to see their role and rights differently as this public forum develops.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said thousands of Qataris are excluded. Small demonstrations against the law broke out in August led by Al Murra tribe members.

HRW said Qatar arrested at around 15 demonstrators and critics of the law. A Qatari source with knowledge of the matter said on Friday two remain in custody “for inciting violence and hate speech”.


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