Democracy at Our Own Pace: Oman's Majlis A'Shura Elections Returned Some Surprising Results When Possibly the Most Female Friendly State in the Gulf Returned No Women Candidates to the Consultative Council. PAT LANCASTER Reports from the Sultanate

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DISAPPOINTING BUT DEMOCRATIC, was a popular response by Omani women questioned on how they viewed the results of the Majlis A'Shura Council elections held across the Sultanate in late October, when not a single woman candidate was elected to the Council out of 631 candidates.


"But we must keep this in perspective," a government official explained to The Middle East. "Yes, it is disappointing that there are no women in the Majlis A'Shura but we only had two before these elections, of which, I believe, only one stood for re-election. It is not a landslide rejection of women members, it is simply that women failed to make progress." And, as the minister of the interior, Sayyid Saud bin Ibrahim Al Busaidi, pointed out at a press conference the day after polling: "It was a disappointing result for the women candidates but we must remember that while 21 women failed to gain sufficient votes to take them through to the Shura Council, more than 500 men also failed to make the grade."

Despite the lack of female success, which the entire official bureaucracy seemed, quite genuinely, to regret, the electoral process went ahead fairly seamlessly. Close to 63% of those eligible to vote did so, a credible turnout by any account.

The Shura Council (Majlis A'Shura), was established in 1991, evolving from the State Consultative Council that came into operation a decade earlier. Its members represent Oman's various districts (wilayats), as elected by Omani citizens. A wilayat with a population of less than 30,000 elects a single representative; wilayats of 30,000 people or more are represented by two members. The winning candidate is the one who obtains the greatest number of votes, according to official election results.

Membership of the Council is for four years, during which time candidates are expected to help the Majlis fulfil its role of broadening the participation of Omanis in shaping and directing the course of their country's development.

The latest elections were only the sixth since the Majlis A'Shura was first established and the government is keen for the process to work and to be seen to work, both at home and abroad. A number of international journalists were invited to "observe" the electoral process first hand at polling stations the length and breadth of the country.

Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who came to power in 1970, has totally transformed the country in the intervening years and has gone on record many times to stress his commitment to allowing Omani citizens to play a vital role in shaping the future of their homeland. Interior minister Sayyid Saud bin Ibrahim Al Busaidi conceded that the democratic process has a long way to go but the first tentative steps have most certainly been taken. "The experience of both the voters and the candidates will grow and mature as we pursue the process of democracy. It will become clear that candidates who make promises they fail to deliver upon will loose their seats; they must not make promises they cannot fulfil."

A persistent criticism of the system, as it stands, is that there is insufficient transparency both before and after a candidate has been elected to the Majlis.

"There must be more openness if we are to progress towards full democracy," a local journalist observed. "At the moment, a candidate is elected to the Majlis but is prevented from speaking in public about what he has been able to achieve during his term of office. We desperately need to be able to know more about the candidate before we elect them. It would be advantageous to see an open debate where candidates can discuss exactly who they are and what they stand for. We need to know exactly how they represented the interests of the electorate during their candidature. Without this information, which makes each prospective candidate accountable, it's as if we are playing poker blindfolded". …