Make Emirati voting age 18, FNC veteran says

UAQ's Ali Jasem says lowering age from 21 will heighten political awareness and give youth a chance to be part of the political process.

BANGKOK // Emiratis as young as 18 should be given the right to vote in the next elections, a veteran member of the Federal National Council said yesterday. Ali Jasem, the longest-serving member of the advisory body, said that lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 would heighten political awareness among the young.

"The goal is to increase the percentage of political participation," he said. "Youths should be given the chance to be part of the democratic and political process." His comments came after he took part in a meeting on the role of youths in democracy as part of the annual conference of the International Parliamentary Union. The call by Mr Jasem for younger voters is the latest in a series of demands made by several members of the FNC, founded in 1972, to grant the body more legislative powers, including the drafting of laws and more independence from the Government.

In 2006, in the country's first election, half of the 40-member council was chosen by a hand-picked caucus of 6,689 citizens. The other 20 FNC members were appointed by the rulers of the seven emirates. As the current council nears the end of its four-year term, its members have pressed for further reforms that would see more citizens involved in the fledging democratic process. Several council members who are taking part in this week's conference in the Thai capital supported Mr Jasem's proposal, arguing that it would "infuse fresh blood" into Emirati politics.

Mr Jasem's avenues for pushing his proposal are limited. The FNC does not have the power to propose laws, but its members can propose changes to laws put forward by the Government. They also can discuss issues of public interest, after obtaining Government approval. Such discussions end with non-compulsory recommendations to the Government. He said that he was unlikely to press other members to hold a public debate on elections.

He said that the idea came to his attention during the discussions at the parliamentary conference. At least five members are needed to submit a request to the Government to discuss issues of public interest. "We need to prepare a generation that is politically aware," Mr Jasem said, "that realise the importance of the Federal National Council, that know their role as members of the society and are given the chance by the constitution to have a role in the decision-making."

He added that another benefit of democratic education would be giving younger generations a forum for political education instead of leaving them under the influence of extremist forces. Mr Jasem, who serves as the second deputy speaker and represents Umm al Qaiwain, conceded that it would be hard to persuade younger people to care about parliamentary politics. "One challenge is that some of the youths are not convinced by the part played by parliament members in public life," he said. Several FNC members said that such a view is held not only by youths but shared by most Emiratis, who feel the council is ineffective.

Yousef Ali bin Fadel, a member from Umm al Qaiwain argued that problems of credibility began when the elected members of the council made promises they could not deliver. "Even the candidate didn't know what were the powers of the council," he said yesterday. "They ran on unrealistic agenda. The expectations were high and that's why people were talking about how the council is not doing its job." Mr Fadel agreed that lowering the voting age would "widen the voting base".