Poor turnout in last all-male Saudi polls

Saudi Arabia does not have an elected parliament.

Last Updated: Sep 30, 2011, 00:36 AM IST

Riyadh: Saudi men were voting in municipal
elections on Thursday, with a poor turnout in the last all-male
polls in the kingdom after King Abdullah this week gave women
the right to participate in four years` time.

Some 5,324 candidates are competing for 1,056 seats --
in only the second elections in Saudi Arabian history -- to
fill half the seats in the country`s 285 councils. The other
half are appointed by the government.

The first elections in the Gulf kingdom, which has a
population of around 27.5 million, including around 19 million
Saudis, were held in 2005, but the government extended the
existing council`s term for two years.

Around 1.2 million male voters have registered to take
part.

But the polls appeared to attract little interest on
the first day of the Saudi weekend on Thursday and Friday.
Just a few voters had shown up before midday at a
polling station in Al-Olaya neighbourhood in central Riyadh,
a news agency correspondent reported.

"The movement is slow before noon. People are still
asleep because it is a day off," said candidate Abdulwahab al
-Maliki.

At another voting centre at Al-Farazdaq primary school
election supervisors waited for voters, but very few turned
up.

"I am confused. I don`t who I should vote for.
Candidates have used Facebook to communicate with us. I prefer
direct contact," lamented Mohammed Abdullah, saying: "I don`t
think I will give my vote to any of them."

Voting was also slow in the country`s economic
capital, the port city of Jeddah on the west coast.

"I voted for a colleague of mine," said retired
teacher Ibrahim Ghazi, adding that he "didn`t check any of the
manifestos of the candidates and didn`t know other names."
The results of the vote are expected on Sunday.

Today`s polling comes just four days after absolute
monarch King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run
in the next municipal elections in four years, a historic
first for the ultra-conservative country.

Women`s rights activists had long fought for the right
to vote in Saudi Arabia, which applies a strict version of
Sunni Islam and bars women from driving or travelling without
the consent of a male guardian.

In addition to women participating in the only public
polls in the country, King Abdullah also announced he had
decided to admit women to the Shura Council, an all-appointed
consultative body.

Saudi Arabia does not have an elected parliament.
The monarch`s move was hailed by the United States and
Britain, with both calling it a significant "step forward."

But the moves were also seen by some as insufficient.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch also welcomed the
king`s decision but said it came too late.

"King Abdullah`s promise that women will finally be
allowed to vote is a welcome move away from the discrimination
and exclusion that Saudi women have suffered for so long,"
said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW`s Middle East director.

"Sadly, King Abdullah`s promise of reform in 2015
doesn`t come soon enough for women to vote in upcoming
municipal elections," Whitson said of today`s vote.

Amnesty International cautiously welcomed the decision
but said the kingdom was moving much too slowly on women`s
rights.

"It is a welcome, albeit limited, step along the long
road towards gender equality in Saudi Arabia," said Philip
Luther, Amnesty`s deputy director for the Middle East and
North Africa.

"It is, however, much overdue and does not go nearly
far enough."

PTI