Little hope for Saudi's all-male poll
Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most traditional absolute monarchies, took a tentative step towards democracy on Thursday when male citizens went to the polls in the first municipal elections the country has witnessed for 40 years.
Candidates have splashed out money on advertising and laid on feasts for potential voters, but the authorities’ “progressive step’’ has left reformers disappointed.
“I call it a quarter election,’’ said Ali al-Ahmad, of the Saudi Institute, a pro-reform organisation based in Washington. “It excludes women voters, that’s 50%, and then only 50% of the council seats will be decided by voting.’‘
The elections are one of the first tangible parts of a reform programme urged by Crown Prince Abdullah, the day-to-day ruler, in the face of stiff resistance from ultra-conservatives.
With all key ministerial posts in the hands of senior princes and an unelected Parliament whose role is consultative, power is concentrated in the hands of the royal family. But the kingdom faces pressure to allow greater public participation.
Elections at local level are seen as one way of opening up the system while preserving the status quo.
Elected councillors will be able to discuss roads, sewage and street lighting, without, as one Saudi put it, getting into debates about “high politics’‘.
But in a country where many regard democracy as un-Islamic, Saudi men have shown limited interest. In Riyadh district about 150 000 have registered to vote, perhaps only a quarter of those entitled to do so. In the Ahsa region, 400km east of the capital, the figure is higher, with almost 45% of eligible men registered to vote.
Despite voter lethargy, there is no shortage of candidates: in Riyadh district 1 800 are contesting 127 seats, and in the capital itself, 700 are vying for just seven seats.
With no political parties allowed, some candidates have spent vast amounts of their own money on self-promotion. One is reported to have spent four million riyals on newspaper ads and posters.
The Jeddah-based daily paper, Arab News, has reported claims that “vote brokers’‘, who offer to deliver large numbers of votes for candidates for a price, have been trying to gain a foothold in Riyadh. In carpeted tents voters have been entertained by poets, lectured by experts in municipal services and fed sumptuous banquets.
Some candidates are standing on an anti-corruption platform, while others have promised to line the streets with trees or build refuges from floods.
While the prestige of winning a council seat is beyond doubt, it is unlikely that the councils will have much real power, since their budgets will be decided for them by the government.
Although election law says all Saudi citizens can take part, the authorities were nervous about the reaction from religious conservatives if women got the vote. They allowed “technical difficulties’’ to decide the issue, saying there were too few women with photo ID cards or female officials to register women voters.
The authorities have hinted, without giving firm guarantees, that future elections will include women and there have been demands to include large numbers among the 50% of council members who will be royally appointed.
“I really think it’s too little, too late,’’ said Mai Yamani, a research fellow at Chatham House who specialises in Saudi affairs. “These elections are part of a show of democratic performance, and part of the pressure in the region — not just because of the Iraqi elections, but because all the other Gulf states now have their own small elections.’‘
The Saudi elections’ credibility also suffers because of the lack of freedom of expression and assembly, and because reformers who called for a constitutional monarchy are still in jail, she said. “Most people I talk to say it is going to give us nothing — all the old rulers will still be there.’’ — Guardian Newspapers 2005
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