By Mahmoud Habboush
RAS AL-KHAIMAH, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates is gearing up for the second elections in its 40-year history, but officials and candidates are finding it tough to answer a commonly asked question: why can't everyone vote?
The UAE government in July hand-picked 129,000 voters to elect 20 of the 40 members of the Federal National Council (FNC), an advisory assembly with very limited parliamentary powers.
The pool represents 12 per cent of Emirati nationals in the Arabian Peninsula nation who will vote on September 24.
The rest of the council will be directly appointed by the Gulf Arab state, which is governed by several ruling families that transfer power from father to son, or brother to brother.
"Why are there no plans for everyone to vote like the rest of the world?" Moza Ghobash, a Dubai candidate, asked the minister in charge of elections during a lecture in Al Ain city earlier this month. "People ask why this person was picked and not that person?"
The wealthy Gulf oil nation has been virtually untouched by the Arab Spring, witnessing from afar the toppling of autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and any hint of dissent has been swiftly stamped out.
This week's elections are part of stated efforts by the seven emirate member states to gradually introduce representation and educate voters and candidates in its methods in an orderly way.
The process has triggered a palpable buzz, albeit mixed with confusion.
Anwar Gargash, the minister of state charged with overseeing the election, argues that while progress may be slow, things are moving in the right direction.
Responding to Ghobash's question at a public forum, a grinning Gargash said: "Even my mother is upset because her name is not on the list."
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The government has not disclosed how the voters were selected, and the selection process for candidates has also been unclear.
A list of voters has been released, but candidates still wonder how best to communicate with their audience, which only make up part of the population. The problem is exacerbated by the fact the population is around 5 million when you include expatriates.
Faced with such questions, candidate Abdullah Mohammed al-Muhairi, 31, of emirate Ras al-Khaimah, said he decided to run a campaign that assumed everyone was eligible.
Muhairi, who served eight years in the UAE's armed forces, distributed brochures, hung up posters with his picture on light poles and paid for air time to appear on television in Ras al-Khaimah, a less wealthy emirate often overshadowed by trade and tourism hub Dubai and major oil exporter Abu Dhabi.
He also pitched a $22,000, air-conditioned tent off one of the city's main streets for a panel discussion on the importance of elections.
"I hope everyone will be able to vote in future elections," said Muhairi, who now runs his own travel agency.
Others chose a more direct approach, depending on the size of the constituency. Instead of spending money on advertising, they went through the lists of voters and called them individually or spoke to heads of tribes.
Candidates can spend up to 2 million dirhams ($544,000) of their own money or raise funds from local communities to finance their campaigns. Foreign donations are strictly forbidden.
MAKING THE LAWS
The UAE government held seminars in the past few weeks for candidates about the rules of campaigning while at least one non-profit organization held a training course on "how to run a successful campaign."
But many candidates still appear to lack a basic understanding of the FNC's constitutional powers, which are virtually nil.
Some have promised to introduce new legislation, even though only government ministries are allowed to do so. The council can only suggest changes to draft bills. Even then, the country's president can overturn any proposed changes.
"Some guy promised to pay off nationals' debt," said 37-year old Juma al-Mansouri. "This is pure lying, the government took off his posters."
Otaiba bin Khalaf al-Otaiba, an Abu Dhabi candidate, promised in a front-page ad in Abu Dhabi's Ittihad newspaper a job for every citizen.
"There's a lot of tickling of the voter's emotions," Maysa Rashid Ghadeer, a former FNC member from Dubai, said. "The promises reflect the people's hopes and aspirations but yet reflect a major lack of understanding of the powers and mandate of the council."
Others have a more sober agenda. Salem al-Shaali, a Dubai candidate, is campaigning on a platform to hand more power to the FNC.
He pledges, in an ad in Al Bayan, a Dubai newspaper, to "help FNC members obtain the right tools to be effective in the decision-making process."
There have been growing demands by former FNC members and intellectuals to give the assembly real powers, introduce universal suffrage and fully elect the council, created in 1972.
Many former FNC members have complained that the government ignored their recommendations on basic issues such as education, healthcare and housing.
"If we look at the first step without regarding what we want to do, then we haven't done anything. But in the context of what we're planning to do this is an important step," Gargash told Reuters.
Less than 7,000 people, or less than 1 percent of the population, were allowed to vote in the UAE's first elections for the council in 2006.
"Currently our full concentration is on a successful election. And then based on that I think we will have enough time to address our next step."
(Editing by Reed Stevenson and Sonya Hepinstall)