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Qatar’s first elections since 2017 reveal unexpected impact of GCC crisis

Turnout in the Qatari municipal elections has declined, suggesting a Qatari citizenry that is slightly less engaged in the formal political process in the wake of the GCC crisis.
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani speaks to the country's consultative Shoura council in Doha, Qatar, November 6, 2018.  Qatar News Agency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC1FF5F57E20

Qatari citizens took to the polls on April 16 to select members of the country’s only elected deliberative body, the Central Municipal Council (CMC). The CMC is a 29-member assembly that advises authorities on local affairs but does not possess legislative or executive powers. The elections were the sixth since the establishment of the CMC in 1999, and the first since the June 2017 blockade of Qatar by neighboring Arab states.

The ongoing diplomatic crisis among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) lent special significance to last week's elections. The economic and political embargo led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates prompted unprecedented mobilization among ordinary Qatari citizens in support of the state, defying concerted efforts by the blockading countries to undermine the legitimacy of the political leadership. As such, public interest in the elections can be viewed as one test of whether the increased popular participation witnessed since June 2017 is likely to translate into the political arena proper.

Neighboring Bahrain, for instance, provides a cautionary example. In 2011, a Shiite-led mass uprising precipitated Sunni counter-movements that initially aimed to defend the state against revolution, but later morphed into populist groups and then institutionalized parties that began articulating political demands of their own. Fearful that these potent new actors would find success in Bahrain’s first parliamentary elections after the uprising in November 2014, the government hastily redrew electoral boundaries and engaged in other measures to undermine their candidates, who did not win a single seat.

The results of Qatar’s 2019 municipal council elections, however, paint the opposite picture. Official figures show that the number of citizens who voted declined by 9% compared to the last elections in 2015, from 14,670 to only 13,334 — roughly 1 in 13 Qatari adults — in 2019. Such turnout suggests a Qatari citizenry that is slightly less engaged in the formal political process in the wake of the GCC crisis.

Findings from a nationally representative preelection opinion survey conducted by the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University offer some insight into the reasons for Qataris’ abstention from the 2019 vote. Among respondents who said they did not intend to participate in the elections, about a third cited lack of time; another third responded that the CMC lacks the authority to influence policy; and approximately 15% said that none of the available candidates appealed to them. Notably, very few nonvoters — less than 10% — attributed their lack of participation in 2019 to the belief that “voting and elections are not the best way to address important issues.”

Qataris thus appear disinterested in the CMC elections, but not in elections generally. This raises the question of Qatar’s other deliberative assembly, the 45-person Shura Council. In contrast to the limited role and authority of the CMC, the Shura Council enjoys, among other powers, control over the general budget. While usually docile, the Shura Council remains influential on matters of domestic politics, and has watered down and even blocked legislation — most notably, labor reforms — that might challenge the privileged status of Qataris in society and in business.

Since the Shura Council’s formation in 1972, Qatar’s constitution has provided for the direct election of its members. However, the state has continued to postpone elections by invoking a clause that permits extending the appointed council’s term “if required by the public interest.” Most recently, after the Arab uprisings in 2011, authorities pledged to hold elections of two-thirds of the body within two years, but the current council’s term has since been extended twice more — through at least 2019.

So, is the continued disengagement with Qatar’s municipal elections a sign of growing discontent over the ever-delayed Shura Council vote? Public opinion data suggest otherwise. In the 2019 SESRI study, less than half of Qataris — about 45% — said they would be “very interested” in taking part in Shura Council elections if they were held, compared to a statistically equivalent 41% of respondents in the same survey conducted four years earlier before the 2015 CMC elections. Even more tellingly, the 2019 survey asked respondents directly whether they would like to see members of the Shura Council elected, or else remain appointed. Only a quarter of citizens indicated a preference for elections, two thirds reported favoring an appointed Shura Council, and around 10% were undecided.

These results point to another possible explanation for Qataris’ indifference toward the 2019 CMC elections, and indeed toward formal political participation generally. It is a different sort of impact of the now two-year-old blockade: an increasing preference for security and political stability in a time of heightened risk and uncertainty. Previous research examining the effect of the Arab Spring protests in Qatar, for instance, showed a decline in the importance that Qataris attached to democracy and buoyed confidence in state institutions after 2011 — a backlash against the bloody aftermath of rebellion on display in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Citizens’ prioritization of electoral participation may likewise have declined since the traumatic experience of June 2017, with more men and women content to leave governance up to the state.

Such views have likely been shaped by the government’s success in insulating ordinary Qataris from the economic effects of the GCC crisis. Despite the Saudi-led boycott, the average household income reported by Qataris in SESRI surveys has actually increased since 2017, undercutting efforts by the blockading countries to foment internal political grievances through financial hardship. Moreover, while Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other GCC states have gone forward with implementation of a 5% tax on goods and services to address fiscal shortfalls, Qatar has used the contingency of the blockade to delay the unpopular reform. And with resource revenues expected to reach more than $150,000 per citizen in 2019, Qatar, unlike its Gulf neighbors, can afford to wait.

Nevertheless, a lack of increased electoral interest in Qatar since the blockade does not necessarily signal political stagnation. Here, the results of the CMC elections, rather than the turnout, are instructive. Several longtime members from influential families and tribes, including the four-term vice chairman, were surprisingly unseated by young, relatively unknown candidates. The Shura Council, too, saw an influx of technocratic appointees at the expense of tribal-based members in a November 2017 shake-up, including, for the first time, four women. The new Shura Council has shown an increased willingness to exercise its authority to quiz Cabinet ministers, raising the prospect of a more empowered if still not elected legislature.

All this points to a Qatari public that remains interested in responsive and accountable government, but that does not conceive of it primarily in terms of voting. Asked in a 2019 poll to name the most important attribute of democracy, a plurality — over 40% — responded that “the government guarantees order and the rule of law.” Another quarter of citizens believed that democracy means the state guarantees jobs for all. Only around 10% of Qataris identified free, multiparty elections as the most important attribute of democracy. The popular activism witnessed in Qatar since the GCC crisis may ultimately lead to a more participatory form of citizenship, but it is almost certain to be grounded within the local political context.