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Oman's elections bring hopes, doubts of institutional change

Sultan Qaboos bin Said promised to bestow new powers on the nation's assembly to tamp down Arab Spring protests, but ahead of Oman's elections tomorrow, those powers remain undefined.

By Faris al-HashmiCorrespondent / October 14, 2011

A member from the voting committee casts her vote in one of the polling stations in Muscat, October 8. Omani members from the voting committee were given permission to vote early, in order to be available to observe Omani voters in polling stations around the country during election day on October 15.

Sultan Al Hasani/Reuters

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Muscat, Oman

Seven months after Omanis took to the streets amid a wave of Arab protests, they will be voting Oct. 15 in elections for the nation’s majlis al-shura assembly. But many don't see the election as a vehicle to bring the change they were seeking, either because of distrust of the candidates or skepticism about the assembly's ability to wield influence in a system dominated by Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

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“I think it has a 50-50 percent chance to bring change," says Mohammed Abdullah Said, a businessman from the capital Muscat. "There is hope. But most [economic and political] development comes from the government and His Majesty. He has more knowledge.”

In March, as popular protests were sending tremors through neighboring Bahrain and Yemen and Omanis had taken to the streets in rare protests, Sultan bin Said announced that he would grant the majlis al-shura (literally, consultative council) additional authority as part of a package of measures designed to placate the demands of demonstrators.

IN PICTURES: Bahrain protests

“These moves were aimed at calming the situation. They wanted to prevent bigger protests [from developing],” says Salim Mohammed Al-Khadory, a social policy specialist at Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University.

With the help of an aid package from the Gulf Cooperation Council, the sultan was largely successful in tamping down the demonstrations. But the new powers promised for the majlis are as yet unknown, though a spokesman says that the newly elected assembly will be given those powers.

Record number of candidates

There is a record number of candidates seeking a seat in the assembly this year, but at least some Omanis are skeptical that assembly members and those who aspire to join them have a genuine desire to improve the country.

“All the members have personal interests. The majlis is a game,” says recent university graduate Azzan al-Hilali, adding that members don't make a sincere effort to represent the people. “They earn enough money to widen their homes, and after four years they’re finished.”

According to Sayyida Tamadhir Al-Busaidi, director of the elections department in the Interior Ministry, 1,133 candidates have registered to compete for the 84 seats in Saturday's election.

But Mr. al-Hilali says the increase in numbers is only due to a desire to hold higher government positions in the future.

“The reason why there are so many candidates is because they want to become ministers,” he says.

In an unprecedented move, the sultan selected seven former majlis members to hold minister positions in a cabinet shakeup earlier in the year.

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