Saudis prepare for first-ever polls
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia prepared on Wednesday for the first election in the history of the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom, a men-only municipal vote that represents a cautious initial step towards reform.
Some 148,000 Saudi men, aged 21 and over, who registered their names on electoral lists were due to choose on Thursday half of the 208 members of the 38 municipal councils in the capital Riyadh and its surroundings. The other half will be appointed by the government, which is battling Islamic militants after a wave of attacks across the country.
Women, who make up more than 50 percent of the population, are banned from participating in the polls, despite neutral rules that say citizens over 21 years of age, except military personnel, have the right to vote.
The election campaign, which kicked off January 29, has been a crash course in democracy for Riyadh residents who had never seen before electoral advertisements in the press and on street billboards or even tents erected along main roads to receive voters and hold press conferences.
Voting in the Eastern Province and the southwest is set for March 3. Electors in the western Muslim holy regions of Mecca and Medina, and the north, will not cast their ballots until April 21.
The municipal polls are the first tangible sign of the much-awaited, slow-paced reform campaign launched in the Saudi kingdom in the last few years since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Fifteen of the 19 suicide bombers who carried out the September 11 attacks — claimed by the Al Qaeda terror network of Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden — were Saudi nationals.s.
Since then, Washington has exerted tremendous pressures for reform and openness in Saudi Arabia, a longtime main US ally in the Middle East.
In a keynote State of the Union address last week, US President George W. Bush issued a rare rebuke to Saudi Arabia, urging the kingdom to “demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future.”
Moderate Islamist Sheikh Mohsen al-Awaji said the holding of the elections was due to many factors, including the troubled situation in Iraq since the April 2003 ousting of the regime of Saddam Hussein by the US-led coalition.
“It is a very, very small step in the right direction,” he told AFP, adding: “But it is not enough.” And that was the reason why he had decided to boycott the polls. The elections will take place against a backdrop of violence waged by suspected local Al Qaeda militants, and which has left 90 civilians and 39 security forces dead in Saudi Arabia since May 2003.
Since then, tight security measures have been enforced in Riyadh which hosted in the last few days an international counter-terrorism conference.
A total of 1,818 candidates are running in the first round, 646 of whom are competing for just seven seats on the capital’s council.
The number of candidates suggested a strong interest by the public, although the proportion of voters who sought registration remained under 40 percent.
Some Saudis said the low proportion was mainly due to the fact that authorities failed to provide proper explanations for the polls, a first in the ultra-conservative kingdom traditionally ruled by tribal structures.
And many Riyadh residents seemed to regret their decision not to register for the elections. “At the next elections, the number (of voters) will be much larger,” said Khaled al-Balawi, who recently flew back home from his usual place of residence in London to help the electoral campaign of a relative. afp