Fri, Feb 11, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Saudis get a taste of Western democratic practices


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 yesterday, when Saudis in the Riyadh region voted in the country's first nationwide elections. They had registration cards, voted behind privacy curtains, dropped ballots in boxes designed according to international standards and chose among candidates who ran Western-style campaigns, including posters, phone text messages and newspaper ads.

When voting began yesterday morning, 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."

Al-Faqih said he would keep his green voter's registration card "as a memento of this historic event."

To prevent fraud, officials used a computer to scan registration cards to indicate the person had voted.

The first of the three-stage elections are only for half the country's municipal councils, and women have been banned from voting and running although the election law does not deny them those rights. But it marks the first time that Saudis were taking part in a regular poll that conforms to international standards, offering them a real, though small, 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 yesterday. "These elections are a pioneering experience, the success of which will determine the following steps."

More than 1,800 candidates were contesting 127 seats in the capital and surrounding villages yesterday, with almost 700 of them 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 candidates' 12-day campaign, a first in the kingdom, brought enthusiasm to what had until then been a lackluster process. Campaigning ended Wednesday afternoon.

Women will be watching the polls from the fringes. Election officials have said they were excluded because there wasn't time to prepare women only polling centers and most women do not carry ID cards. But others privately acknowledge that this mostly conservative society would not have accepted the notion of a woman voting or running.

Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, a cleric at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, said scholars are divided over the issue, with some supporting and others objecting to women's involvement in elections.

Although women's issues were almost absent from candidates' platforms, many candidates were asked during daily gatherings with the public on whether they support women's rights. Candidate Badr al-Suaidan tried to hedge the question Tuesday evening, but when an insistent guest demanded a yes or no answer, al-Suaidan answered affirmatively. It was a response that may have cost him some ballots among conservative voters.

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