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MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS IN SAUDI ARABIA
 

MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS IN SAUDI ARABIA

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Mar 21 - 27, 2005
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A survey conducted by an independent agency in Jeddah showed 87 percent of Saudis are backing women's participation in the forthcoming elections. It also reflected the greater role of media in educating the public on the polls.

In the second phase, elections were held in the eastern and southern regions on March 3. The third and final phase, covering Makkah, Madinah, Tabuk, Hail and Al-Jouf regions as well as Qasim and the Northern Border Province will be held on April 21.

"Eighty-seven percent of 240 Saudis who took part in the survey called for women's participation in the next round of elections," said Dr Muhammad Fashetan, chairman of the SAS Center for Opinion Survey and Consultancy in Jeddah.

He said the survey's participants included 50 teachers, 20 businessmen, six university students, 40 government employees, 20 retired military officers, 20 media persons and 30 retired civilian officials.

Some women were actually happy to hear the survey report, no matter how small the number polled was. For them it indicated that there is a change in the way people perceive the matter and some saw it as a result of the media's influence. But a considerable number of women also expressed their doubts on the credibility of the poll.

Nawal Hamed, a physician, said that the number mentioned in the survey, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, is not representative of the Saudi population. "I have my doubts on the significance of this number and I think the people polled belong to a certain educated class that is why they seem supportive of women voting."

 

 

Rasha Muhamad, a Girls' Education Department employee, echoed the same skeptical sentiments saying, "I do not think the general Saudi public shares this feeling." Housewife Lama Muhamad said that voting was the basic right for both men and women, on the condition that they can offer something good. "But this poll does not tell me that the resistance to women's participation has changed." Saudi Arabia's landmark nationwide municipal elections began on February 10, 2005 when Saudi men in the Riyadh region cast their votes. Women, who make up more than 50 percent of the population, were excluded from the vote. As a result, a number of ambitious women had announced their intention to run in the historic polls, speaking openly of their manifestos.

Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal as well as the chief election officer Prince Mansour ibn Miteb has expressed their hope that women would be able to take part in the next round of municipal elections to be held in 2009. "Municipal elections are a new experience in the Kingdom and the short time given to the Election Commission made it impossible to allow women's participation this time," Prince Mansour told reporters.

The main reasons for barring women from the election were administrative, an election official said, adding that there was not enough women electoral staff to run voter registration centers, while only a fraction of women had photo identity cards.

But many women rights activists were not happy with the explanation and urged the government to appoint women to fill the remaining seats as elections are conducted to pick half the members of the country's 178 municipal councils. In a letter to Prince Mansour, they demanded that the other half of the councils' seats be allocated to women, Hatoon Al-Fassi said in early January. "We are demanding the maximum (possible) and we believe it is our right," said Fassi, a history lecturer at King Saud University.

The Saudi Association for Media and Communication (SAMC) will train a large number of Saudis to act as election monitors in the upcoming Jeddah municipal elections scheduled for April 21.

This was disclosed by Dr. Ali Shewel Al-Garni, president of SAMC, which is a member of the Coordinating Council for Election Monitoring, along with the Saudi Journalists Association, the National Society for Human Rights and other civic organizations.

Dr. Al-Garni said: "We are planning to send election monitors to various democratic countries both in the West and elsewhere to study election practices there. In the light of their experience, the election laws could be re-examined, since it's our first experience in this field."

Asked to comment on the two rounds of elections held so far, he said the large number of candidates chasing a limited number of seats has put the voters in a dilemma. "They don't know how to deal with the situation. In Riyadh, for example, we had 600 candidates contesting seven seats, while in the Eastern Province, more than 206,650 voters and 800 candidates were registered."

Dr. Al-Garni thinks one way out of this confusing situation would be to have two-stage elections consisting of a first round and an elimination round. Only candidates who have emerged successful in the first round could prove their mettle in the second round with a clear message and a firm commitment to the voter.

He observed that there should also be a ceiling on election expenditure, as in one case a candidate spent more than SR10 million. By putting a cap on election expenditure, the focus would shift to the candidate's merits, he added. This aspect would also come up for review.

Dr. Al-Garni disclosed that the Ministry of Interior has started registering Saudi women with its Civil Status Department in preparation for issuing identity cards. He described it as a significant move to empower women as voters in the next elections four years from now. "We have noticed that lately the ministry has intensified its drive through the mass media calling on women to register their names in the branch offices of the Civil Status Department."

 

 

Courtesy Arab News-Kuwait Times
Edited by Amanullah Bashar