- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Saudis have been slow to register for the first municipal elections in more than 40 years, demonstrating an apparent lack of enthusiasm for an unfamiliar process.

Despite a government advertising campaign encouraging Saudis to be a part of the decision-making process, only a few prospective voters trickled into registration centers when they opened last week.

“They should have started the media awareness campaign a year ago. Instead, they waited until just a few months ago and they’re trying to save money,” said a Saudi official in charge of the media campaign for the elections, who asked for anonymity.

Organizational problems also have arisen.

The Saudi newspaper Al-Madinah reported that on the first day, registration was delayed in some centers for 90 minutes because computers failed and some were left without electrical power.

In other centers, the machines that issue the voter ID cards were not working. Each voter is being issued a plastic ID card that includes his picture, his name and a bar code.

The municipal elections, to be held in three phases early next year, will choose half of the members of the kingdom’s 178 councils, with the government appointing the other half.

Voting is open only to men 21 and older, but the balloting is an important step in a country in which until recently no one was allowed to publicly criticize or challenge state policy.

The government, which has been cautiously opening up to the outside world, decided last year to hold the elections in the face of attacks by Islamist militants and pressure from the U.S. government, which wants Saudi Arabia to take steps toward democratization.

“It’s too early to tell if the run-up to the elections is going well, as the registration just started,” said Abdul Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg, a Saudi legal analyst in Riyadh.

“It took me only 15 minutes to register yesterday at my local registration center, but there was very little traffic at the center,” he said.

In a surprise announcement last week, Brig. Gen. Ali Al-Qahtani, director of prisons in the Riyadh region, said 5,000 male prisoners would be allowed to vote in the elections. The government announced in October that women would not be allowed to vote because of technical reasons.

Last week’s decision angered some Saudi women, who said it gave the wrong impression that criminals had more rights in Saudi Arabia than women.

“A prisoner who is a criminal, who is an outlaw, will have the right to be a part of the decision-making process, and law-abiding women, working hard to make ends meet, are being excluded from the elections. It’s just ridiculous,” said Fatin Bundagji, a Jidda woman who announced her candidacy in September.

“Saudi men should equally be offended that prisoners are being allowed to vote,” Mrs. Bundagji said.

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