FOCUS: The Saudi Election

By Jodi Wynn, intern

Many Saudis were skeptical when their government — an absolute monarchy — announced it would be holding the first in a series of municipal elections on February 10, 2005.

To many, the attempt at democracy seemed to be an effort to appease the West and reformists.

Despite the fact that half the council seats and official government positions will be appointed, the election is unprecedented, and may represent a major change in the idea of government in Saudi Arabia.

But there are many factors that may undermine the process.

The exclusion of women from the polls brought condemnation from Western media, but was described as only practical by a Saudi journalist.

The election has also been hit by allegations of campaign violations by winning candidates.

The election is for 592 seats in 178 regional councils throughout the country. Thursday’s poll was for the Riyadh region in which 1,818 candidates competed for 104 seats in 38 councils.

Out of 646 candidates for the Riyadh council, seven winners are said to have ties to Islamic organizations, including schools, mosques and charitable groups.

News sources such as the Associated Press are framing the election results as a triumph for Islamists, but the winning candidates insist they are moderate.

Some 30 losing candidates are discussing an appeal of the results, saying that the winners violated a campaign rule prohibiting political parties and coalitions.

According to the New York Times, the complaints allege that a list of the seven candidates went out to voters via Internet and cell phones describing them as “trusted people,” suggesting religious affiliation, and that voting for them would “bring blessings.”

The election comes at an ebb in the violent Islamist rebellion that peaked last year with multiple attacks in Riyadh, and represent a baby step toward political reform in a country deeply conflicted by the demands of tradition and the need for change.

Keyword search (saudi election): Google News, Yahoo News

“Why Saudi Poll is important”
Arab News, February 12, 2005

“Some Saudis fear complaints may taint milestone election”
International Herald Tribute, February 15, 2005

“The Saudi ‘elections'”
New York Times, February 18, 2004

“Women and elections”
Arab News, February 16, 2005

“Islamic parties reap a harvest”
Associated Press, February 13, 2005

“Eliminated candidates appeal over Saudi poll result”
Middle East Online, February 14, 2005

“‘Islamist Win’ in key Saudi poll”
BBC News, February 11, 2005

“Saudi voter turnout called ‘reasonable'”
New York Times, February 11, 2005

“Politics and Policies: Saudi’s next step”
United Press International, February 14, 2005

Additional writing by the editors.

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