- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — An estimated 140,000 Saudi men went to the polls here yesterday in the first elections to be held in the kingdom in more than 40 years.

Women have been barred from voting until at least 2009.

Seventy-three polling centers in the Riyadh region opened their doors at 8 a.m. and voters were seen already waiting outside some of them. Results are expected early today.

Turnout was light at some centers, while others reported waits of up to 30 minutes.

“I voted for only two candidates, as I didn’t know enough about any of the other candidates,” said Raid Al-Fassi, a 25-year-old government employee voting in the Malaz district.

The voters had to sift through a seven-page, color-coded ballot that listed the names of the 646 candidates vying for only seven seats on the Riyadh Council.

Only half of the seats on each council nationwide are being chosen by electors. The other half will be filled by government appointees. Voters in the Eastern Province go to the polls on March 3, while voters in the western and northern regions will make their choices on April 21.

Voters of all ages were seen throughout the capital. Even illiterate Bedouins were seen voting in eastern Riyadh, with poll workers reading the names of candidates to them.

Prince Mansour ibn Miteb ibn Abdul Aziz, the head of the Higher Local Election Committee at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, defended the government appointing half of the councils, saying it was necessary to ensure the quality of the councils.

“It’s a wise decision to have half of the members appointed by the government, as we can choose experienced ones. I think the issue should be ‘where are we heading,’ instead of theoretical performance,” he said.

But some voters said they had studied the platforms of candidates and attended their public meetings to make their choice.

“I chose the highly educated candidates,” said Abdulrahman Al-Ibrahim, a senior civil servant who came prepared with a list of names of the candidates he was going to choose. “I voted for two engineers, one businessman and two doctors.”

Candidates were barred from advertising on radio and television, so voters were forced to form their opinions of candidates by reading their platforms in newspaper ads or attending the daily meetings many candidates held in giant tents erected just for that purpose.

There was concern among some Saudis that candidates with the largest campaign funds, not the most qualified, would be elected.

One wealthy candidate spent more than $1 million on his campaign. His face was plastered throughout the city on huge posters, in newspaper ads and even on small bottles of mineral water that he gave away at his campaign appearances.

Not all Saudis are convinced of the government’s commitment to democratic reforms.

“Isn’t it ironic that my husband and two others, who called for a constitutional monarchy are still in jail while the government is going ahead with reforms?” said Jamila Alukla, the wife of jailed reformist Matruk Al-Faleh.

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