* Election awareness campaign launched to teach democracy
* Critics say hi-tech equipment disguises scant political
* Officials enlarge electorate, analysts say meaningless
By Isabel Coles
UMM AL-QUWAIN, United Arab Emirates, Aug 21 (Reuters) - In a
dark auditorium, rows of men in traditional white robes and
women swathed in black watch silently as computer-animated
characters take their turn at electronic voting machines in a
film aimed at educating them on how to vote.
On Sept. 24 they will cast their votes for half of the
United Arab Emirates' Federal National Council (FNC), a
quasi-parliamentary body designed to serve as a link between the
country's rulers and its people to build democratic institutions
gradually in the Gulf Arab state.
But given that the 40-member council has no legislative
authority, half its members are appointed, and only about 12
percent of citizens -- themselves handpicked by the UAE's rulers
-- can vote, critics question how much substance it has.
"It's theatre," said a former FNC member, who spoke on
condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue. "It
looks good, but it doesn't mean there's anything underneath."
SEEKING A SHIFT IN THE POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT
The election awareness roadshow has been to all seven
emirates, from Umm al-Quwain, with its low biscuit-coloured
buildings, to the glinting skyscrapers of business hub Dubai, to
"strengthen electoral culture".
Officials have rolled out an election logo, set up a special
website, printed explanatory brochures and even installed the
Arab world's first high-tech electronic voting machines to press
on with a programme of gradual democratisation.
It is only the second election to be held in the UAE.
"We seek through the current election, a shift in the
political environment of the UAE," Minister of State for FNC
Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash said in a statement last week.
At a session in the northern emirate of Umm al-Quwain,
several dozen voters filed into a conference hall where the
election logo -- a young boy running with the national flag
billowing behind him -- was emblazoned on booklets and posters.
"We are on the right track and we are in no hurry. What do
we lack? ... Our state has provided us with everything," Aisha
Rashed Leytaim, an eligible voter who also planned to run for an
FNC seat, told Reuters, speaking over the election's rousing
UAE UNTOUCHED BY ARAB REVOLTS
The UAE's oil wealth has so far staved off the kind of
popular protests that ousted the veteran leaders of Tunisia and
Egypt, but hundreds of signatures on an online petition calling
for free and fair elections suggest there are Emiratis who share
their neighbours' desire for a greater role in government.
Even before this year's unrest across the Arab world, UAE
rulers intended to broaden popular participation, but the
regional upheaval seems to accelerated those plans.
Last month, the number of people entitled to vote or run in
the September election for the FNC was increased to 129,000,
nearly 20 times more than in the UAE's first election in 2006,
in which less than one percent of Emiratis could take part.
Ministers have signalled they will continue to expand the
electoral pool until all Emiratis can vote but critics argue
that this is meaningless as long as the FNC is a toothless body.
Officials have pledged to increase the FNC's powers, but the
council has yet to be given legislative authority -- its mandate
is to discuss issues and draft laws, review constitutional
amendments and make recommendations, among other advisory tasks.
"Even if you had 100 percent of the Emirati population
eligible to vote they're still just voting for a talking shop,"
said Christopher Davidson, a UAE analyst at Durham University.
He said the purpose of the elections seemed to be little
more than to give Emiratis a sense of progress.
"It's to try and cultivate a feeling amongst the national
population that they're on a path that's actually leading
somewhere, not that they're merely voting for some antiquated
institution that has no power and probably never will," he said.
UAE officials know that well-paid state jobs and generous
subsidies may not suffice to immunise their citizens from the
political currents flowing from North Africa to neighbouring
Oman and Bahrain.
But despite calls from inside and outside the FNC for its
powers to be expanded, the UAE has defended its policy of phased
reform, saying democracy must be developed gradually among an
electorate used to leadership by a federation of local sheikhs.
"The issue is how do I walk the path to a full democracy? Is
it just by calling people to polling stations or by educating
them so that their whole life is based on sharing, debating and
learning democracy?" wrote the editor of the Gulf News daily.
The process of selecting the people who can either elect or
be elected is opaque. An audience member at one session of the
election roadshow complained that some people given the right to
vote were already dead.
An assistant minister for FNC affairs blamed the mix-up on
relatives' failure to inform the Emirates Identity Authority,
and said the ruler of each emirate has his own criteria for
"The people who are supposedly elected are actually
appointed, if you think about it," said the former FNC member.
Critics say democracy is not just about elections but about
freedom of speech and attention to other human rights, where the
UAE does not have a strong record. Five activists and academics
-- some of whom signed the online petition for FNC reform -- are
on trial on charges of "insulting" the country's rulers.
Speaking in a hushed voice in a hotel, the former FNC member
dismissed the idea that democracy must be introduced gradually.
"The Emirati people are competent and capable of taking part
in proper elections -- if only they were given the chance".
(Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)