Challenges, potentials in Oman’s municipal polls
Nominations of candidates for Oman’s first municipal council elections began throughout the country on Saturday. Contestants have until May 30 to file nominations, at walis’ offices in their wilayats.
According to the Municipal Election Law issued last year, any Omani citizen, aged 30 is eligible to stand as a candidate. Members of the State Council and Majlis Ash’shura and government employees and security personnel are not allowed to contest.
Wilayats with an Omani population of less than 30,000 will choose two representatives, while those with more than 30,000 Omani inhabitants will elect four members.
There will be six elected representatives from wilayats with a local population of above 60,000.
Although the date has not been announced yet, the polls are expected to be held towards the end of the year.
According to Omani writer, Mohamed Saif Al-Rahbi, the Omani society is preparing for a different new social initiative, which was not experienced before in the community; it is the establishment of municipal councils. It has taken decades to reform and improve the experience of Majlis Ash’shura. With regard to the election process, it has not developed much. However, it has witnessed some changes in its role in the political life due to the new legislative and regulatory rules which have been accorded to the Majlis. The two words, legislative and regulatory, became more overused as people were raising them as logos requesting for such rules and regulations and asking to revise and effectively apply them in reality, Rahbi adds.
After establishing one council for consultation serving one major goal which is Oman, the homeland without any regional barriers and interests, here comes the experience of the municipal councils for each governorate in the Sultanate. These councils symbolise small Shura councils in all governorates to present its needs and demands to meet the circumstances of place and time. They are intended to work in social co-operation within a contemporary and modern system in a bid to avoid any bureaucratic and centralised issues.
In fact, an intensive awareness campaign should be organised for the citizens to enlighten them about the municipal council. This campaign should also clarify why a particular person is selected and not another one. We are afraid of making the same things which have been done during the Majlis Ash’shura elections as people have chosen their representatives according to their social relations. Some have nominated the representatives because they were from the same tribe.
With the coming elections to the Municipal Councils, the Sultanate is all set to witness a marked overhaul of its civic management workforce system. Following the directives of Royal Decree No. 116/2011, new regulations would soon be in place to create a stronger leadership and better administration at the local self-government level.
Several wilayats (provinces) have witnessed a growing public demand that municipal councils be granted a greater role in accordance with the Royal directives. This has led the Ministry of
the Interior to put in place an administrative mechanism to implement a more responsive system. The citizens, meanwhile, are expecting an active role of Municipal Councils in all governorates. Observers expect the public representatives to exercise the powers granted to them by the law, and translate the demands of the citizens into socially-productive actions.
Ahmed Al Hinai, a mediaperson who is actively involved in social campaigns, says that to make the civic bodies effective, Omani voters should elect qualified candidates who are committed to serve the society. "They should provide a new vision to the country and be able to formulate policies and strategies without indulging in partisan tribal politics, he stresses.
A local lawyer, Salim Al Hatmi, says that the public is not familiar with the wide powers granted to the Municipal Councils and there is a lack of clarity over its powers and the purpose of the regulations among both the representatives and the public.
Al Hatmi says the public will gradually realise the importance of the Municipal Councils. "Its role in public life will be enhanced by the changes the representatives will bring in to the civic affairs at the ground level, he says, while adding further: "Our society lacks a mature electoral culture. This has led to giving undue priority to personal interests and sectarian conflicts. Some of the candidates give money to voters, use social influence, power and tribal relations to win elections.
Khalid Hamdan, a writer, says that the media has a big role to play in spreading awareness about the Municipal Councils. "The media should be an active partner to bring to the forefront the local public concerns.
According to author Aziza Al-Habsiya, the women candidates have indeed learned through their experience of contesting the Shura elections, that there are ways, practised by some candidates, that do not fit with the ideas and principles that they uphold. She emphasized that women shall surely not give a short shrift to their cherished ideals and principles to eke out victory. From that experience, women must also have learned, that it will require hard work and absolute faith in their merit, even though the tide may not be blowing in a direction that makes their ships steady and steadfast.
She believes that educated society will lend its support to women in the upcoming municipal elections. In my assessment, women will be using all the means available within their reach to reach the voters. “I hope they will use effectively all kinds of tools — both social media and the traditional methods — to get their message across to the voter”.
Al-Habsiya concludes that there is no doubt that the social media can once again play a pivotal role by exhorting the citizens to take part in voting, and make especially young people realise the importance of casting one’s ballot. The crucial role and efficacy of the social media just can’t be debated. Now, who can deny its role in ushering in changes in several Arab countries in what we call as Arab Spring?
However, one must admit that the traditional styles of campaigning such as holding meetings with people is also important because there is a section of people that is not comfortable with or adept in utilising the modern technology, including the elderly and housewives. Aside from this, there are a lot of websites that still lack the trust of the citizens. So, the traditional tools of campaigning such as newspapers, hoardings and banners in the streets, and the distribution of pamphlets are still the trusted means.
“I must repeat here that voting on the basis of gender does not promote efficiency and certainly fails to complement the dreams of Omanis that the elected members are capable of delivering” says Al-Habsiya.
Another point that must be noted here is that the factor of the tribe has begun to recede as well in voting. The tribal factor is not as important as it was earlier. There are a small number of people who still believe that their lives must go as instructed by the Shaikh of the tribe and the Shaikh of the region, but there are people who prefer to take their own decisions.
Also, while the power of money is still there, unfortunately, due to the absence mainly of any Omani body that takes care of the elections. Though there is a decree to create such a body but it is not effective as yet.
“I am, albeit, a bit apprehensive that the top corporate owners might take over the municipal council seats at the expense of the ‘owners’ of competencies and qualifications in the next elections. But we all hope that this does not happen. Let us all be optimistic that these elections will take us all to a new level of excellence and dynamism” concludes this Omani author.