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.

As Saudis watched the winds of free speech and democracy gust through Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt in recent months, the first elections here in 60 years ended Thursday with barely a stir.

Small numbers of Saudi men turned out to cast their ballots Thursday in the third and final elections for 179 municipal councils nationwide. Women were not allowed to participate in this cautious experiment in political reform by the world's largest oil exporter.

Apart from minority Shiites in the Eastern Province, and Islamist supporters of popular conservative clerics, the majority of the country's eligible voters showed little interest in the elections that began in February and were carried out in stages.

In the bustling commercial city of Jeddah, only 55,000 men, or 22 percent of the city's eligible voters, registered, according to government figures.

Analysts say that the desultory response was due to several factors, including restrictions on campaigning, an inexperienced and poorly informed electorate, and the low stakes: voters were choosing only half the seats on their local city council.

"It's difficult for people to suddenly become engaged in politics and elections when the political arena has been barren and political institutions have been non-existent for decades," says Khalid al-Dukhayel, assistant professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh.

The government's election-awareness campaign was insufficient, says Mr. Dukhayel, "because there were no grass-roots movements or civic societies available to energize the people and make up for the shortcomings of the government [get-out-the-vote campaign]."

Political parties and gatherings are not allowed in Saudi Arabia, a monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family for more than 70 years. In the past three years there has been a movement toward greater freedom of speech and tolerance in the kingdom. But dissidents who criticize the monarchy or its religious establishment risk jail.

President Bush, who will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in his ranch in Crawford, Texas, April 25, has been pushing for Saudi Arabia to democratize since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Most of the hijackers were Saudi. The Bush administration has said that the lack of political participation has led to religious extremism in the region.

The last round of voting here has been marked by controversy. Last week a "Golden List" with the names of seven candidates running in Jeddah, endorsed by popular conservative clerics, started circulating via text message and on Internet web sites. Despite allegations of foul play by 21 other candidates, the election commission ruled that those mentioned on the "Golden List" had not violated elections rules. Candidates on a similar list in elections in Riyadh in February swept the polls there.

The Arab News newspaper quoted Sheikh Mohammad al-Shareef, one of the clerics endorsing the list, who defended his actions by saying he has the right to recommend the candidates he knows and trusts.

The strong showing of the Islamist candidates, who swept the Riyadh elections, is credited to the fact that political gatherings are banned. Religious groups are the only ones allowed to gather and speak publicly in the conservative kingdom, analysts say.

"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.

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."

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