Qataris began voting in the emirate's first legislative election Saturday in a symbolic nod to democracy that analysts say will not lead to power shifting away from the ruling family. The vote for the advisory Shura Council has also stirred domestic debate about electoral inclusion and citizenship.
The vote is for 30 members of the 45-strong Shura Council, a body with limited powers that was previously appointed by the emir as an advisory chamber.
Polls opened at 0500 GMT and will close at 1500 GMT with the results expected the same day.
At a polling station in the Jawaan bin Jassim school in the Onaiza district of the capital Doha, Qatari citizens wearing white thobes signed in to vote at a registration desk.
After queueing briefly, they cast their ballots into a semi-transparent plastic box emblazoned with the dhow boat, crossed swords and palm tree emblem of Qatar.
Observers say the decision to hold the election, approved in a 2003 referendum but repeatedly delayed in the "national interest", comes amid heightened scrutiny as Qatar prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.
"They consider that doing it before the FIFA World Cup will attract more positive attention as a way to show they are taking positive steps," said Luciano Zaccara, an assistant professor in Gulf politics at Qatar University. "It's a way to show that they are moving in the right direction, that they want to achieve more political participation."
No control over defence security, investment policy bodies
The Shura will be allowed to propose legislation, approve the budget and recall ministers. But it has no control over executive bodies setting defence, security, economic and investment policy for the small but wealthy gas producer, which bans political parties.
The emir, all-powerful in the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, will also wield a veto.
Campaigning has taken place on social media, community meetings and roadside billboards, which have speckled the streets of Qatari towns with billboards adorned with beaming candidates sporting national dress.
Beyond single-candidate town hall meetings, posters and TV spots, the country's introduction to democracy has been limited, with no change of government possible, as political parties are illegal.
Candidates have uniformly avoided debate about Qatar's foreign policy or status as a monarchy, instead focussing on social issues including healthcare, education and citizenship rights.
Qatar's deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, last month described the vote as a new "experiment" and said the Council cannot be expected from the first year to have the "full role of any parliament".
Kuwait has been the only Gulf monarchy to give substantial powers to an elected parliament though ultimate decision-making rests with the ruler, as in neighbouring states.
Electoral inclusion and citizenship
All candidates had to be approved by the powerful interior ministry against a host of criteria, including age, character and criminal history.
Candidates have also been required to register official campaign events with the ministry in advance, as well as the names of all speakers as authorities seek to clamp down on possible sectarianism or tribalism.
The candidates are mostly men, with just 28 women among the 284 hopefuls running for the 30 available council seats. The remaining 15 seats will be appointed by the emir.
Most of Qatar's 2.5 million residents are foreigners, ineligible to vote, nationals making up only 10 percent of the population. Even then not all Qataris are eligible to vote.
The polls have stirred tribal sensitivities after some members of a main Qatari tribe found themselves ineligible to vote under a law restricting voting to only direct descendants of those who were present in the country before 1930, using data compiled by the then-British authorities.
Diplomatic sources suggest families and tribes have already conducted internal ballots to determine who will be elected for their constituencies.
The foreign minister has said there is a "clear process" for the electoral law to be reviewed by the next Shura Council.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP & REUTERS)