JEDDAH: A few ads in newspapers and a handful of posters are among rare clues visible in Saudi Arabia that it will hold a nationwide local council election on Thursday, only the second in recent memory and one that critics say is a charade.
Welcome to election season Saudi-style where, despite democratic change sweeping other Arab countries, the victorious candidates will fill only half the seats on municipal councils that have few real powers.
Although the Saudi king announced on Sunday that women can vote and stand for office in future elections, they will have to wait for the next opportunity after Thursday. For now, they cannot participate in the election as voters or candidates.
"The election process here is just a show for the world that there is ‘democracy’ in this country," said Mariam, a 27-year-old resident of Jeddah, who declined to give her last name.
"It is a shell and they are trying to make the outside look good while the inside is rotten. They want to keep us thinking that we have a say-so that we don’t create an uprising."
In Saudi Arabia’s first municipal election, held in 2006, only half the 83,000 people who registered to vote cast a ballot. Of 18 million Saudis only another 20,835 men have registered to vote this time and turnout is not seen any higher.
Pictured across a quarter page of newspaper Al-Watan, Abdulaziz Al-Sorayai, a 48-year-old businessman wearing a traditional white thoub (kaftan) and head dress, is among 117 candidates for seven seats on the Jeddah council.
"What I plan to do if elected is to demand to raise the council’s authorities," Sorayai told Reuters. "If the municipal councils remain with the same (limited) authority then it will not achieve much."
The council’s limited role includes approving a municipal budget,
suggesting planning regulations and overseeing city projects, said Abdul Rahman Gannam, the election committee information officer in Jeddah.
That lack of power might go some way to explaining the absence of enthusiasm noticeable on Jeddah’s streets this week.
And while Sorayai and other candidates believe the elections will help increase the government’s accountability to its citizens, activists in the world’s No. 1 oil exporter have dismissed the Sept. 29 poll and called for a boycott.
While protests swept the Arab world this spring, bringing the promise of democracy to Egypt and Tunisia, Saudi Arabia almost entirely dodged political demonstrations and Sunday’s decision on women’s suffrage was the only political concession.
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud instead offered citizens a package of social benefits worth over $130 billion and lent troops to help neighboring Bahrain quash protests from its own Shia majority.
The conservative kingdom has no political parties, while members of its Shura Council are appointed by the royal family and have only advisory powers. The royal family dominates key government posts and ministers are appointed by the king.
However, in March Saudi Arabia announced it would at last hold the long-delayed municipal elections that were originally scheduled for 2009, ostensibly to involve citizens in the decision-making process.
Women are excluded, officials say, due to logistical difficulties in maintaining strict rules on gender segregation. According to the king they will vote in the next poll in 2015.
"I will not vote in the upcoming municipality elections in protest for not allowing women to vote," said Ibrahim Al-Mugaiteeb, president of the Human Rights First Society.