DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates held a tightly controlled election Saturday for its largely advisory Federal National Council, though only just over a third of those Emiratis allowed to vote by their rulers cast a ballot.
While authorities heralded the election as a success, the third-ever such poll in the seven-state federation that includes oil-rich Abu Dhabi and the commercial hub of Dubai largely failed to excite those granted the opportunity to vote.
That may have been due in part to the scope of the council's powers. The 40-member panel considers federal laws and provides oversight of government ministries, though it rarely opposes the decisions or recommendations of the country's ruling sheikhs.
Up until 2006, the sheikhs picked all the members of the council. Now, they pick half of its 40 members, while the other half are voted in by an electoral college comprised of members selected by the rulers.
In 2006, the first election saw a 74-percent turnout among the 6,689 Emiratis eligible to vote. But when the pool widened to 129,274 voters in 2011, it saw only 36,277 cast ballots — a 28-percent turnout.
In returns carried by the state-run WAM news agency late Saturday night, 79,157 of 224,279 eligible voters took part in the election, which included voting abroad, early voting and an Election Day on Saturday. That put the turnout at 35.29 percent, though over 40,000 more voters took part this time as compared to 2011.
"This election process is considered a successful one by all standards," state-backed media quoted Anwar Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs and Federal National Council affairs, as saying. "Through team work, the UAE succeeds and continues to prosper, grow and develop."
Still, not every Emirati could take part in the election. It's not clear how many Emiratis there are in the UAE, though the United Nations suggests they represent a little under 20 percent of the country's more than 9 million people.
The Emirates' huge foreign worker population, including white-collar employees and construction site laborers, hasn't advocated to take part in the political process, content with earning tax-free wages.
Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at Emirates University, had said he hoped for a high turnout, but believed many of the voters likely didn't even know they were part of the electoral college. While government officials allowed for overseas voting this year and heavily promoted the election, Abdullah said a lack of real issues discussed in the campaign and the limited power of the council could further dampen turnout.
"To say, 'Go and vote and this vote means you're voting for the Emirates,' and then you end up with 70 percent of the people not voting for the Emirates, that's going to be bad," Abdullah said Friday.
State-financed newspapers ran a slew of stories about the election, profiling voters who said they worried about unemployment or wanted expanded health care coverage. Away from Dubai and Abu Dhabi's gleaming skyscrapers, those living in poorer emirates want better roads, schools and economic opportunities.
But the Emirates has weathered low oil prices, the global recession and other economic challenges.
There have been few if any public signs of discontent, even after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The killing of 52 soldiers fighting in the Saudi-led war in Yemen in September prompted an outpouring of patriotism and support for the Emirates' rulers. It marked the deadliest day for the Emirati military since the founding of the federation in 1971 and many began flying the nation's red, green, black and white flag to honor those killed.
"The government has a huge reservoir of trust (from) the people," Abdullah said. "It's a government that has delivered very substantial achievements over the past 40 years and people trust the government and trust the way things are. They don't want anything to tamper with it."
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