Women left out as Saudi polls fever intensifies

ONE candidate promises to fill the streets with trees, another wants to build shelters for flash floods, many claim they would stamp out corruption if elected to the municipal council in the first nationwide elections that begin on 10 February.

And because Saudis have never voted in a regular election, stories of first-time faux pas fill newspapers: the camel that escaped slaughter for a feast given by a candidate; the woman who called a candidate offering to be a second wife; and the reporter who decided to run so he could cover the registration of candidates.

Election time in the Riyadh region has invigorated the quiet capital, where the first phase of the municipal polls will be held on Thursday.

True, voters can elect only half the municipal members while the rest will be appointed by the government; women have been banned from running and voting; but the ballot is a concrete, if tiny, step in a reform process no-one had expected in Saudi Arabia. Plus, for the first time there are forums - daily meetings at candidates’ HQs - where people can discuss social issues away from the eye of religious authorities.

The elections are part of the kingdom’s measured response to calls for reforms long sought by liberals. They will give Saudis the chance to participate in decision-making in the absolute monarchy whose unelected consultative council acts like a parliament while political parties are banned and press freedoms limited. The elections have brought unfamiliar scenes to Riyadh residents.

Pictures of candidates appear in newspaper ads and on billboards in a country where depiction of the human face is considered un-Islamic. Carpeted tents serving as bases for candidates have been erected along highways, attracting potential voters with programmes featuring poets, lectures by experts in municipal services and feasts. Candidate flyers are thrown into open car windows, brochures are folded into newspapers and phone text messages extol candidates’ virtues.

"Who would have thought that one day there would be candidates’ pictures in the streets... that one day there will be slogans urging participation in decision-making?" asked Sulaiman al-Hattlan, a US- educated columnist for the Al-Watan daily newspaper.

"This is a sign that, given an opportunity to open up and adopt new concepts, society will take it," he added.

The municipal elections will be carried out in three phases, beginning with the Riyadh region, where about 1,800 candidates will contest 127 seats.

While candidates’ platforms have focused on improving municipal services, some have taken their enthusiasm a bit too far. One, for instance, has promised to turn the government into an e-government.

One issue that has remained absent from the candidates’ agendas is that of the role of women. The government has banned them from the polls, but some officials have promised they will take part in the second round in 2009.

But an article on a privately-owned website welcomed the ban, saying women belong at home and their participation would constitute "an interference in men’s affairs".

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