Supporters of Khaled al-Sebaiay, a candidate for Saudi municipal council elections mind the information desk in Riyadh
Zainal Abd Halim  /  Reuters
Supporters of Khaled al-Sebaiay, a candidate for the municipal council in Riyadh, mind an information desk Thursday.
updated 2/11/2005 1:52:06 PM ET 2005-02-11T18:52:06

Forty years ago, in municipal polls limited to big cities, a candidate would slaughter a few sheep, throw a dinner party in a tent to announce his candidacy and, on election day, drive supporters — some even without identification — to write their names on his list.

It was a different story Thursday, when Saudis in the Riyadh region voted in the country’s first nationwide elections. They will have registration cards, vote behind privacy screens, drop ballots in boxes designed according to international standards and choose among candidates who ran Western-style campaigns, including posters, phone text messages and newspaper ads.

When voting began, election officials at one polling station in a middle-class neighborhood in northeastern Riyadh opened the long gray ballot boxes and held them up for reporters to see that they were empty. The officials then closed, locked and placed masking tape over the covers of the boxes. Voters waited in line outside the polling station’s door.

“This was a wonderful moment,” said Badr al-Faqih, a 54-year-old geography professor, moments after dropping the first vote into one of the ballot boxes. “This is a first step towards more elections.”

The first of the three-stage elections are for only half the country’s municipal councils, and women have been banned from voting and running. But it will be the first time Saudis will take part in a vote that conforms to international standards, offering them an opportunity to participate in decision-making in this absolute monarchy.

“Although such a step appears small and humble, it carries many implications, for it’s the first time that basic preparations for elections are held,” Labor Minister Ghazi Algosaibi told a news conference Wednesday. “These elections are a pioneering experience, the success of which will determine the following steps.”

More than 1,800 candidates are contesting 127 seats in the capital and surrounding villages Thursday, with almost 700 men running for seven seats in Riyadh. Only 149,000 out of 600,000 eligible voters have registered to vote. Two more phases will cover the rest of the country in March and April.

The 12-day campaign, a first in the kingdom, brought enthusiasm to what had until then been a lackluster process. Campaigning ended Wednesday.

Women, however, are watching from the sidelines. Election officials have said women were excluded because there wasn’t time to prepare female-only polling centers and because most women do not carry ID cards. But some Saudis privately acknowledge this mostly conservative society would not have accepted women as voters or candidates.

Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, a cleric at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, said scholars are divided over whether women should take part in elections.

Although women’s issues were almost absent from campaign platforms, many candidates were asked about women’s rights during daily public gatherings. Candidate Badr al-Suaidan tried to hedge the question Tuesday evening, but when a guest was insistent, al-Suaidan answered affirmatively — a response that may cost him votes.

'Dumped in the back seat again'
Columnist Badriyah al-Bisher criticized the decision to bar women and made an analogy between their exclusion from the vote and the ban on women drivers.

“We’ve been dumped in the back seat again, and only a man is allowed to drive us,” she said.

With more than 1,800 candidates in the Riyadh region, it was difficult to determine how many fundamentalist Muslims are running. Many candidates are wealthy businessmen and landowners who have poured millions into their campaigns in hopes of gaining influence. Even if they lose, the campaign is good self promotion.

The powers of the councils are not clear, nor are their specific responsibilities. But analysts expect them to become a conduit for public dissatisfaction, especially among poorer Saudis, that will bridge the information gap between the government and the people.

Algosaibi, the labor minister, said others may judge the pace of reforms in the kingdom as too slow but critics “do not realize that the nature of societies itself is what should be the only criteria for the pace of change.”

“What makes reform here slow is that Saudi Arabia has always been based on the principle of consensus. You have to wait for a viable consensus to reform before you go ahead.”

Saleh al-Malik, a member of the elections commission, said there once were elections in Saudi Arabia, but only in big cities. The balloting was halted in the early 1970s for reasons that are not clear.

Muhammad al-Mutlaq, 74, recalls voting more than 40 years ago.

Al-Mutlaq, who has registered to vote next month, said there were no campaigns, no ads and no registration cards. Voters learned about a candidate’s intentions at a feast he hosted in his tent.

“He would have a banquet, feed the people, round them up in cars and take them to the municipality to vote for him,” al-Mutlaq said.

“We called that elections,” he said.

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