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Middle East: Saudi Arabia Holding First Nationwide Vote

Saudi Arabia is holding its first nationwide elections today in a bid to introduce elements of democracy in this conservative desert kingdom. In a three-phase poll beginning in the capital of Riyadh, Saudi men will elect members to half the seats on local councils. Women, who represent half of the country's 24 million people, can neither run for election nor vote.

10 February 2005 -- Saudi men go to the polls today in the initial stage of the first-ever election to be held in a country that up until now has been ruled by absolute monarchy.

The vote marks a small and tentative step toward democracy in the Saudi Kingdom. But interest in the election has been low. Of 600,000 eligible voters in the capital region, only 149,000 registered to cast their ballot.

Fahd al-Mubarak, a member of the Saudi Consultative Council, an unelected legislative body, told Reuters the elections are very important. But he added he would like to see more people voting.

"The mere fact that it is the first time is significant," Mubarak said. "Just for it to happen shows the significance of it. Now, how effective and how broad [the vote will be] -- that is something that will evolve and increase over time and more in different regions in the kingdom, so it is very important. It has drawn most of the intellectuals in the society, most of whom are middle-aged, so it is reasonable. It [turnout] is low; we would like to see more in Riyadh. But it is reasonable."

Nationwide, more than 3 million Saudis are said to be eligible out of a population of some 24 million, many of whom are foreign workers who are not allowed to vote.

Women, who make up more than half the population, are also barred from participating in the election, either as candidates or voters.

Saudi voters are due to elect half the members of 178 municipal councils across the kingdom. The powers of the municipal council are not clear and half the council will still be chosen, as before, by appointment.
More than 3 million Saudis are said to be eligible out of a population of some 24 million.

Candidates range from businessmen, tribal figures, and security chiefs to academics and officials.

Voters today were to vote for candidates running for 127 seats in 37 councils in the Riyadh region. A total of 646 candidates are running for seven of the capital city's 14-seat council.

An unidentified election official in Riyadh told Reuters today that the process of registration and voting has gone smoothly.

"As an official, I am very happy that we have gone through all the stages of the election very smoothly," the official said. "Through the registration process and the campaign process, all has been successful. Now we are in the final stage, the stage of voting. I hope that we go through this smoothly as well."

Voting in the second round, which covers the Eastern Province and the southwest, will take place on 3 March.

Voters in the western regions of Mecca and Medina, as well as the northern regions, will go to the polls 21 April.

Until now, the country's reigning dynasty, the al-Sauds, have rejected the notion of sharing power.

Some Saudis have expressed skepticism about the vote, saying the election is a sham staged by the ruling elite to appease Western demands for increased democracy.