JEDDAH/DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabian men voted in only the second nationwide election in the country’s history on Thursday, but nearly empty polling booths in the second city, Jeddah, showed few were enthusiastic about voting for municipal councils with little power.
In a year when demands for democracy rocked other major Arab nations, only 1.08 million Saudi men even registered to vote in elections to choose just half the members of municipal councils.
There are 18 million Saudi nationals, but political parties are banned, campaigning is strictly controlled and women will not be allowed to vote until the next poll in four years.
“It doesn’t seem as if there is enthusiasm about it this time around,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a newspaper columnist in the capital Riyadh. “Last time people talked about the elections everywhere. In their text messages, in their meetings, in phone conversations and newspapers everywhere. This time you don’t have that atmosphere.”
In the first Saudi municipal elections in 2005, turnout was around 50 percent and candidates used lavish hospitality to attract voters.
This year, campaigning was limited to adverts in newspapers or posters, none of which referred to the big issues that divide liberal and conservative Saudi citizens.
The councils’ limited role includes approving a municipal budget, suggesting planning regulations and overseeing city projects, said an election official.
Even in Jeddah, where deadly flash floods this year prompted accusations the municipality had failed to build proper defences or prevent construction in areas at risk, voting was slow.
At a city-owned building in the well-heeled al-Rawda neighbourhood of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea port, officials had laid out signs marking off two separate lines for voters queueing to reach the air-conditioned polling booths.
By mid-morning, two hours after voting began, constituents were arriving one or two at a time and appeared to be basing their decisions on word-of-mouth endorsements from friends or family.
“I‘m voting for somebody my friends told me about,” said a middle-aged man who did not want to be named. “He’s a professional who loves his job and wants to improve the city.”
Moments earlier he had asked the election officers sitting behind wooden desks for their opinion on which candidate he should vote for.
It was no busier in the poorer Hai al-Samir district, where six voters arrived in 20 minutes to cast their ballots at a polling station next to a rubble-strewn plot of land.
The area was badly hit by the January floods and some of those who did vote said they hoped the council would improve matters.
“Our area is considered one of the most troubled and needs a lot of work,” said Yahya al-Harbi, a middle-aged man in traditional dress and a short beard. “The candidate promised a lot of new infrastructure and plans to solve the problem of disturbances to the water and electricity supply.”
Without political parties or a track record for politicians, voters have found it difficult to distinguish between a plethora of candidates fighting for only a few council seats.
“People are new to this experience,” said Dakhil. “Many candidates do not have that long a record on the basis of which you can judge.”
Saeed al-Saleh, one of 117 candidates fighting for seven seats on the Jeddah council, was observing voting at a polling station in the low-income Aziziya neighbourhood.
“It looks like there’s low turnout and I think the reason is that in the last elections the candidates did not fulfil their promises,” he said. “I only received my permit to campaign four days ago, which didn’t give me enough time. At the moment it seems the only people voting are voting for their friends or family.”
Reporting By Asma Alsharif; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Tim Pearce