Qataris were voting for representatives on a new 29-member central municipal council that is to give advice on food and public hygiene to the ministry of municipal affairs and agriculture. This may seem a modest democratic advance, but the elections are seen as a watershed. A national elected parliament is planned and yesterday's polls are a first step towards the legislature that is expected to be set up early in the next century.
Female voters turned up in greater numbers than men at many constituencies in the capital, Doha. "Our women are more educated than men, you know, and they are more eager to see the change," said one female candidate. The otherwise positive credentials of the elections were undermined, however, by the fact that only a small proportion of the whole population voted.
All Qatari citizens over 18 years of age, out of a native population of 150,000, were eligible, but according to officials only 23,000 registered in time. Police and defence personnel were barred from voting. Between 90 and 95 per cent of those eligible had cast their ballots in Doha by the end of polling and in rural areas turnout as polls closed was estimated at 60 to 70 per cent.
Qatar is a political maverick in a conservative region. The emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has said that people's participation in the affairs of state can accelerate economic and social development.
"March 8 will enter Qatar's modern history as the blessed start of an era of democracy and popular participation in the service of the homeland and its citizens," said the Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Khalifa al-Thani.
The role of women as voters and candidates is a first for the Gulf region. Kuwait, the only Gulf state that has an elected parliament, does not allow women to vote or run for office. Oman's consultative council has two female members, but the body is indirectly elected.