By Isabel Coles
UMM AL-QUWAIN, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) - In a dark auditorium, rows of men in traditional white robes and women swathed in black watch silently as computer-animated characters take their turn at electronic voting machines in a film aimed at educating them on how to vote.
On September 24 they will cast their votes for half of the United Arab Emirates' Federal National Council (FNC), a quasi-parliamentary body designed to serve as a link between the country's rulers and its people to build democratic institutions gradually in the Gulf Arab state.
But given that the 40-member council has no legislative authority, half its members are appointed, and only about 12 percent of citizens -- themselves handpicked by the UAE's rulers -- can vote, critics question how much substance it has.
"It's theater," said a former FNC member, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue. "It looks good, but it doesn't mean there's anything underneath."
SEEKING A SHIFT IN THE POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT
The election awareness roadshow has been to all seven emirates, from Umm al-Quwain, with its low biscuit-colored buildings, to the glinting skyscrapers of business hub Dubai, to "strengthen electoral culture."
Officials have rolled out an election logo, set up a special website, printed explanatory brochures and even installed the Arab world's first high-tech electronic voting machines to press on with a program of gradual democratization.
It is only the second election to be held in the UAE.
"We seek through the current election, a shift in the political environment of the UAE," Minister of State for FNC Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash said in a statement last week.
At a session in the northern emirate of Umm al-Quwain, several dozen voters filed into a conference hall where the election logo -- a young boy running with the national flag billowing behind him -- was emblazoned on booklets and posters.
"We are on the right track and we are in no hurry. What do we lack? ... Our state has provided us with everything," Aisha Rashed Leytaim, an eligible voter who also planned to run for an FNC seat, told Reuters, speaking over the election's rousing theme song.
UAE UNTOUCHED BY ARAB REVOLTS
The UAE's oil wealth has so far staved off the kind of popular protests that ousted the veteran leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, but hundreds of signatures on an online petition calling for free and fair elections suggest there are Emiratis who share their neighbors' desire for a greater role in government.
Even before this year's unrest across the Arab world, UAE rulers intended to broaden popular participation, but the regional upheaval seems to accelerated those plans.
Last month, the number of people entitled to vote or run in the September election for the FNC was increased to 129,000, nearly 20 times more than in the UAE's first election in 2006, in which less than one percent of Emiratis could take part.
Ministers have signaled they will continue to expand the electoral pool until all Emiratis can vote but critics argue that this is meaningless as long as the FNC is a toothless body.
Officials have pledged to increase the FNC's powers, but the council has yet to be given legislative authority -- its mandate is to discuss issues and draft laws, review constitutional amendments and make recommendations, among other advisory tasks.
"Even if you had 100 percent of the Emirati population eligible to vote they're still just voting for a talking shop," said Christopher Davidson, a UAE analyst at Durham University.
He said the purpose of the elections seemed to be little more than to give Emiratis a sense of progress.
"It's to try and cultivate a feeling amongst the national population that they're on a path that's actually leading somewhere, not that they're merely voting for some antiquated institution that has no power and probably never will," he said.
UAE officials know that well-paid state jobs and generous subsidies may not suffice to immunize their citizens from the political currents flowing from North Africa to neighboring Oman and Bahrain.
But despite calls from inside and outside the FNC for its powers to be expanded, the UAE has defended its policy of phased reform, saying democracy must be developed gradually among an electorate used to leadership by a federation of local sheikhs.
"The issue is how do I walk the path to a full democracy? Is it just by calling people to polling stations or by educating them so that their whole life is based on sharing, debating and learning democracy?" wrote the editor of the Gulf News daily.
The process of selecting the people who can either elect or be elected is opaque. An audience member at one session of the election roadshow complained that some people given the right to vote were already dead.
An assistant minister for FNC affairs blamed the mix-up on relatives' failure to inform the Emirates Identity Authority, and said the ruler of each emirate has his own criteria for appointing voters.
"The people who are supposedly elected are actually appointed, if you think about it," said the former FNC member.
Critics say democracy is not just about elections but about freedom of speech and attention to other human rights, where the UAE does not have a strong record. Five activists and academics -- some of whom signed the online petition for FNC reform -- are on trial on charges of "insulting" the country's rulers.
Speaking in a hushed voice in a hotel, the former FNC member dismissed the idea that democracy must be introduced gradually.
"The Emirati people are competent and capable of taking part in proper elections -- if only they were given the chance."
(Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)