During 30 minutes at a Riyadh voter-registration center, only two people an old man and a prince walked in to sign up for the kingdom's first nationwide elections...
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia During 30 minutes at a Riyadh voter-registration center, only two people an old man and a prince walked in to sign up for the kingdom’s first nationwide elections. At another center, a mere eight people registered in 45 minutes.
Despite a campaign urging residents to register before Thursday’s deadline, Saudi men women are barred from voting have shown little enthusiasm for elections in a kingdom long regarded as autocratic, secretive and resistant to reform.
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By Sunday, only about 100,000 of 600,000 eligible voters in the Riyadh area had registered since centers opened Nov. 23. Three-stage municipal-council elections begin in the capital Feb. 10.
Saudis have not been swayed by pictures of senior princes and soccer stars signing up to vote. Nor have they been driven to emulate Iraqis and Palestinians, who are due to cast ballots next month.
“It didn’t occur to me” to register, said Mohammed al-Subai, 29, who works in public relations.
“How would it change my life?” asked Faisal al-Amer, a 28-year-old electric-company supervisor. “I want democracy, but making all that effort for municipal elections is not worth it.”
The elections for half the 178 council members the rest will be appointed by the government are part of the kingdom’s measured response to calls for reforms long sought by liberals.
Voting will give Saudis the chance to participate in decision-making for the first time since the kingdom was established in the 1930s. Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has an unelected Consultative Council that acts like a parliament. Political parties are banned and press freedoms are limited.
“Some believe the elections are just a public-relations maneuver to improve the kingdom’s image, that they’re not a serious effort for change,” said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi journalist who has a political talk show on Dubai TV.
“Real elections have an end result decision-making gets into the people’s hands and that’s something the political regime is not ready for,” he said.
Others say a low turnout is expected. They say it takes time for people to appreciate how elections can change their lives.
Fahd al-Mubarak, a Consultative Council member, said that once candidates begin campaigning next month, those who did not register “will feel very sorry they have forfeited this right.”
Khaled al-Dakheel, a political-sociology professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University, said the government should have started with elections for a body with more power than municipal councils.
“The way we started was not encouraging for youths,” he said. “Plus, the media campaign has been weak.”
Such criticism and the low registration have not dampened the enthusiasm of election officials, however.
The registration campaign’s spokesman, Sultan al-Bazei, said the election committee had “realistic” expectations of how many people would sign up. Some Saudis will only be convinced of the importance of municipal polls after they see the improvements that councils can make in roads, city planning and the environment, he said.
Al-Bazei said those who don’t understand the councils’ role can find the information easily. Pamphlets have been slipped under doors and inside newspapers, detailing the voting process in layman’s language. Newspapers have given the elections almost daily coverage.
“If you want to learn, you will find a way to learn,” said Mohammed al-Asiri, the campaign’s creative director.
Al-Asiri came up with the campaign slogan “Take part in decision-making” and designed its logo, which draws from the national emblem of a palm tree over two crossed swords. The tree’s trunk is a long ballot box, its fronds are ballots going into the box, and two crossed check marks have replaced the swords.
“If, after all these efforts, people are not interested, what can you do?” said al-Asiri. “If registration figures remain low, it will be a shame. It will look like the government has moved one step forward and we have moved 10 steps back.”
The newspaper Al-Watan has reported on some confusion about registration. The paper said a woman in her 60s entered a registration center to ask what elections meant, whether participating is rewarded with money, and whether she could register.
Three young men went into a center thinking the election logo was a contest promotion. When they learned the truth, they refused to register, saying they knew nothing about elections, Al-Watan reported.
Hameed Askar, in his 80s, hobbled into a Riyadh registration center with a cane. When asked if he will vote in February, Askar looked around and said: “Oh, do I have to come here again?”