1:53pm

Thu September 29, 2011
Middle East

In Saudi Arabia, Only Men Vote, And Not Often

Originally published on Thu September 29, 2011 7:16 pm

In Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah has the only vote that really counts, elections are still a novelty.

Municipal elections on Thursday marked just the third ballot in the kingdom's history. Only men could vote in polls to fill half the seats on some 300 municipal councils. The other half are appointed by the government.

Even before the polls closed, Saudi officials declared the election a success. But turnout appeared low at many voting stations, including in the capital, Riyadh.

The clear ballot boxes displayed in the middle of one pristine polling center were largely empty as closing time approached. The center's supervisor, Ali Alequeily, said only 80 of the 1,800 voters registered voters cast ballots. That's a turnout of less than 5 percent.

He himself was one of those voters. Another one was Dr. Mossad, an American-trained surgeon who marveled at how quickly he was able to cast his vote. But he, like the polling supervisor, was surprised by the low turnout.

Mossad believes one reason voters stayed away is that they were disillusioned with the previous councilmen, who advise local government officials on municipal services and development.

"There was not much improvement, I would say it, or even communication because if you try to call him, you cannot find him," he said of elected officials. "But I think this time they are trying to solve it and I hope they will solve it in the right way."

Hamad Saad Al-Omar, a spokesman for the Saudi Election Committee, said voting was still a new concept in the kingdom, and the local councils were a work in progress.

"We are learning from our mistakes," he said, adding that people didn't know what to expect from elected members of the municipal council. Now, measures giving the councils more power are in the works.

Activist Calls For Boycott

That wasn't enough to satisfy critics like Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani. He heads the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in Riyadh, which called for a nationwide boycott of the polls. Qahtani says Saudis want a real say in how their affairs are run.

"By the end of the day you are electing individuals with no mandate and it's just municipal councils," he said. "We are ready to elect people in the Parliament."

Candidates like Yahya Zahrani criticized the boycott, saying it was hypocritical to demand democracy and then not cast ballots when given the chance.

Meanwhile, several Saudi women said they would have been thrilled to vote.

They were not allowed to because of a government ban. Officials claim they didn't have enough time to set up separate polling stations for women, who because of religious and social traditions are strictly segregated from men in public spaces.

Ruba, a 21-year-old college student who asked that only her first name be used to protect her family, was among dozens of Saudi women who had protested over being excluded. They went to registration centers across the country last spring in a failed effort to sign up.

"Of course it's disappointing because we demanded this five months ago and so it was enough time to prepare," she said.

King Abdullah announced on Sunday that women would be allowed to take part in future polls, and she then opted not to protest Thursday's ballot.

Other women said they feared a backlash from Saudi authorities, especially after a woman in the coastal city of Jiddah was sentenced this week to 10 lashes for flouting the kingdom's ban on women drivers.

Late Wednesday, the sentence was apparently canceled. The woman's attorney, Adnan al-Saleh, said the king's nephew called his client to tell her the news. Saleh added that they were still waiting for an official announcement.

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Saudi Arabia, voters went to the polls for only the third time in the kingdom's history. Only men could vote in the election, filling half of the seats on some 300 municipal councils. The other half are appointed by the government.

Even before the polls closed, Saudi officials declared the election a success. But turnout appeared low at many voting stations, including in the capital, Riyadh.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is there. She sent this report.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The clear ballot boxes displayed in the middle of this pristine polling center were not even a quarter full as closing time approached.

ALI ALEQUEILY: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: The center's supervisor, Ali Alequeily says only 80 of the 1,800 voters registered here had cast ballots.

Did you vote today?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Me?

SARHADDI NELSON: Yeah.

MAN: Yes, yes this one, this one.

SARHADDI NELSON: The supervisor points to a folded ballot near the top of the heap.

Another voter was Dr. Mossad. The American-trained surgeon marveled at how quickly he was able to cast his vote. But he, like the polling supervisor, was surprised by the low turnout. Mossad believes one reason voters stayed away is because they were disillusioned with the previous councilman, who advised local government officials on municipal services and development.

MOSSAD: There was not much of improvement, I would say, or even communication because if you try to call him, you cannot find him. But I think this time they are trying to solve it. And I hope they will solve it in the right way.

SARHADDI NELSON: Hamad Saad al-Omar, who is a spokesman for the Saudi Election Committee, says that's exactly what the government is doing. He explains voting is still a new concept here, and that the councils are a work in progress.

HAMAD SAAD AL: We are always aiming for better. Every time we are aiming better and we are learning from our mistakes. The first round, people didn't know the roles of a municipal council.

SARHADDI NELSON: Omar says Saudis have to be realistic about how much they can expect from the people they elect. He adds that measures giving the councils more power are in the works.

That wasn't enough to satisfy critics like Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani. He heads the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in Riyadh, which called for a nationwide boycott of the polls. Qahtani says Saudis want a real say in how the affairs of their country are run.

MOHAMMAD FAHAD AL: By the end of the day, you are electing individuals with no mandate and it's just municipal councils. We are ready to elect people in the parliament. And I think the people are waiting for that announcement to come out of the king's speech on the 25th of September. That did not happen.

SARHADDI NELSON: But candidates like Yahya Zahrani criticized the boycott.

YAHYA ZAHRANI: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: He calls it hypocritical to demand a kingdom become a democracy and then not cast ballots when given the chance.

Meanwhile, Saudi women interviewed by NPR say they would have only been too happy to vote today. They were not allowed to because of a government ban. Officials claim they didn't have enough time to set up separate polling stations for women, who because of religious and societal norms, are strictly segregated from men in public places.

Twenty-one-year-old Ruba, a college student who asked that only her first name be used to protect her family, was among dozens of Saudi women who had protested over being excluded. They went to registration centers across the country last spring in a failed effort to sign up for the voting.

RUBA: Of course it's disappointing because we demanded this five months ago, and so it was enough time to prepare whatever preparations they had to do.

SARHADDI NELSON: But Ruba says that after King Abdullah announced on Sunday that women would be allowed to take part in future polls, she opted not to protest today.

Other women said they feared a backlash from Saudi authorities, especially after a woman in the coastal city of Jeddah was sentenced Tuesday to 10 lashes for flouting the kingdom's ban on women drivers.

Late last night, the sentence was apparently canceled. The woman's attorney, Adnan al-Saleh, says the king's nephew called his client to tell her the news. Saleh adds they are still waiting for an official announcement.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Riyadh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.