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Saudi democratic experiment ends on a flat note

Low turnout Thursday marred the last of three municipal elections in Saudi Arabia's first national vote.

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"With the government's blessing for the past 30 years, the Islamists have been the only group in the political arena. The liberals were not allowed to gather or form coalitions because their demands were overtly political. Whereas the Islamists' work was indirectly political," says Saudi analyst Saud al-Sarhan.

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Saudi writer Mshari al-Thaydi says conservative clerics began organizing last year. "The clerics need only tell their supporters to vote and they do it out of a sense of religious duty," says Mr. Thaydi, who works for the Asharq Alawsat newspaper.

In contrast to the low turnout Thursday in Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina, there was enthusiasm for the elections in the Eastern Province, home to most of the country's minority Shiites, about 15 percent of the population. Voters were bused in to the registration polls and lines formed outside voting centers there. Saudi Shiites, who often face persecution for their beliefs, were eager for a chance to have a say, however small, in their affairs.

But herein Jeddah, many ordinary Saudis were not lured to vote.

The government has not "engaged the Saudi public with the elections," says businessman Tarek Halawani. "We don't know what the goals of the elections are, what the purpose is, what the council's mandate is," says Mr. Halawani.

Osama Abalkhail, a member of the government's election council, replies that in Jeddah alone 350,000 flyers spelling out the election details were distributed to the newspapers. "These are the country's first elections and we can't force people to participate. But when they realize how central the municipal councils are to their lives ... then they will vote," he says.

The candidates, more than 500 have been vying for seven seats in Jeddah, were given 11 days for campaigning. Many set up carpeted tents on the main streets with strings of bulbs to attract voters and chairs lined up outside. At his election tent engineer Osama Jamjoom spoke to a crowd of some 80 men about his program.

"You need transparency and accountability from your elected municipal council candidates. You need to participate in deciding the future of Jeddah," he said. Jamjoom's invited speakers on a recent evening were his uncle, to vouch for his character and upbringing, and cleric Sheikh Tawfiq al-Sayegh, to put religion as well on his side.

During the question-and-answer session, a man sitting in the front took the microphone and pointedly asked Jamjoom, what he would achieve if he were voted into the council. "Will you be able to speak to the government without pandering to them as most people seem to do now? Will you be able to change a society that has been neglected for so long, where people are not free to speak their minds?" he asked.

Activist Sami Angawi, who did not vote in protest over the exclusion of women, says the elections are a good first step, but are not enough. "We don't necessarily need democracy here," he says. "What we need is freedom. - to make a choice, to make a decision." He says he wants freedom "both from our government's restrictions and from Western concepts."