New members of Oman’s municipal councils, voted into power at the end of last year, are settling into office. The democratic election of local people to the councils is expected to have a significant impact on decision making in the Sultanate. The elections in December 2012 marked a double first, when Omanis were invited to elect municipal officials for their own wiliyats and the process was conducted electronically.
The list of candidates, which originally included 46 women, were vying for 192 seats on local councils that have no direct powers but will serve in an advisory role. In the event, four of the successful candidates elected to represent their regions, were women although, disappointingly, some female candidates did not attract a single vote.
Oman was not without its problems in the wake of the Arab Spring but the government in Muscat has gone to considerable lengths to ensure the introduction of reforms and legislation to address concerns, including financial incentives in the shape of public sector pay rises and increases in the number of state jobs.
Increased democracy was a main demand of protesters in Omani cities during the Arab uprisings last year, along with more jobs and an end to corruption. After the demonstrations, Sultan Qaboos swiftly reshuffled his cabinet and the government promised to create thousands of jobs, and announced plans for municipal polls. The Shura Council was granted additional legislative powers, including the right to approve or reject draft laws.
Although municipal councils have only limited powers, some voters expressed hope the new system might spur job growth via local business. Oman’s government announced that it had created 52,000 public sector jobs in the first 10 months of 2012, and at least 22,000 in the private sector, cutting the number of registered unemployed by three-quarters to just over 17,000.
A concern of some women voters was the obvious discrepancy between the numbers of men and women present at the polls. Some women candidates, who felt their gender seriously under represented among voters, went as far as to withdraw from the race. “No matter how many times men are told to elect women, it will not change anything. Men tell their wives and daughters not to bother to vote at all and certainly not to vote for women”, complained one.
“It is very sad that women follow what their men say,” said Shamsa Al Harthy, 42, who was among those who removed her name from the ballot.
Some women believe the gender prejudice is inherent at the very heart of government, citing the example of that there are only two women serving as cabinet ministers.
“The government decision makers must take women seriously by appointing more women in the cabinet. If they do that, then perhaps the voters will take up the example,” said Nayla Khamis, 29, a voter at a Muscat polling station. However, as another female voter pointed out: “The government has given us the opportunity to vote for who ever we choose. If women then refuse to vote for women because their menfolk tell them not to do so, they have only themselves to blame”.
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