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Qatar Holds Local Elections

March 8, 1999

DOHA, Qatar (AP) _ Men in flowing white Arab robes and veiled women covered in black lined up today to vote in Qatar’s municipal elections, the oil-rich emirate’s first taste of democracy that is being closely watched throughout the Gulf.

Although the 29-member Municipality Council being elected will only have advisory powers, the vote is a landmark in this conservative region where open franchise is rare. The vote is also giving women a unique opportunity to vote and run for office.

Qataris, among the richest people in the region, drove in luxury cars to polling stations _ school buildings and white tents with multicolored interiors where free Arabic coffee was served.

``For the first time I am able to ask for something. This means freedom and democracy, which is new for us. We were always dreaming of such a day,″ said Ahmed al-Muftah, 59, outside a polling tent in District 10 in southern Doha.

A group of 20 women encased in black cloth from head to fingertips to toes trooped into the tent, divided into separate sections for men and women in keeping with Islamic traditions.

Rep. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y., who is observing the elections, said the coming together of Islamic customs and democracy was ``marvelous.″

``Consider, this a nation where women are covered, yet given the opportunity to have a free democratic elections ... it means democracy,″ she said.

Observers from eight other countries, including Britain and France, were also monitoring the polls.

Some 23,000 voters out of 150,000 citizens, are eligible to vote for the council that will represent 29 districts of Qatar.

The low voter turnout was because many Qatari men are members of the army and police, which makes them ineligible to vote by law. Also ineligible are those who have been citizens for less than 15 years.

Six women were among the 248 candidates.

Moza al-Malki, 41, a columnist and psychology professor, stands out as the only woman candidate who does not wear the traditional Muslim veil.

The role of women in the elections 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.

Qatar has not held democratic elections since independence from Britain in 1971. Monday’s elections are a first step toward an elected legislature that is expected to be set up early in the next century.

The reforms spring from the vision of Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, a liberal monarch who since taking power in 1995 has introduced a provisional constitution and lifted media censorship.

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