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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February, 2005, 16:53 GMT
Q&A: Saudi municipal elections
Saudi press graphic
Candidates can campaign in the press but not on TV

Saudis vote on Thursday in phase one of their first ever municipal elections, seen as a bid to answer calls for greater democracy.

How did the poll come about?

Under pressure from home and abroad, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has edged towards reform.

Inherent wariness of change and a security crisis caused by recent attacks by militants have hampered the process.

In October 2003 the cabinet decided to put half of all council seats to the vote "within a year".

Many members of the public responded with a cautious welcome.

Opposition groups saw the move as merely a token gesture, but newspapers spoke of a "giant step".

Women initially greeted what they saw as a "quantum leap" towards a better role in society.

What happened next?
Phase 1 - 10 Feb (Riyadh reg)
Phase 2 - 3 Mar (5 regions)
Phase 3 - 21 Apr (7 regions)
Total number of councils - 178
Total contested seats - 592
Councils in phase 1 - 38
Seats in phase 1 - 104
Candidates in phase 1 - 1,818

The timetable slipped. By January 2004, officials were questioning the delay.

Crown Prince Abdullah himself was quoted as complaining: "From what I see, nothing has happened."

The Municipal Affairs Minister finally announced election rules in August and approved a timetable in October 2004.

How did women get left out?

The rules left women's participation ambiguous. The use of the masculine form in Arabic for all citizens reinforced reports saying women would be denied the vote.

In September the Municipal Elections Committee appeared to confirm this.

But some Saudi women responded by insisting they would vote, unless the cabinet issued a "crystal clear decree". Three even announced their candidacy.

Then in October, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef categorically ruled women out.

Following protests, the municipal affairs minister explained that they were excluded not by the system, but by "time constraints". He said they could vote and run in 2009.

How has campaigning been?

Your Vote = Affordable House + Cleaner Environment
Campaign ad in press

Candidates have erected huge tents on empty plots where the public and the press can ask about their programmes.

Guests are welcomed with dates and coffee, with dinner served later.

Political reform and corruption are the main issues, as is unemployment.

Some candidates have placed adverts in newspapers. These call for a cleaner environment or better public services.

Other candidates have web pages and employ PR companies. Saudi law forbids candidates from speaking to TV networks.

What is the electoral system?

Polling is across 13 regions in three phases: 10 February (Riyadh region), 3 March (in the south and east) and 21 April (north and west).

A total of 592 seats in 178 municipal councils are being contested, with the rest nominated later by the government.

After a period of registration, voter lists are published. On this basis constituencies and seats are established.

The law says: "Every citizen can vote if they are over the age of 21, not in the military and have lived in a constituency one year before polling day."

Candidates can nominate themselves within five days after publication of voter lists. They should be over 25. Candidate lists are published 25 days before polling day.

Some 1,800 candidates are running in round one. Of these 646 are competing for just seven seats on the capital's council. The rest will contest 37 councils in surrounding areas.

How many registered voters are there?

In phase 1 registration was sluggish, with the media blaming apathy on "lack of awareness". On 22 December, the deadline, a "surge" was reported.

But the total registered in Riyadh region is put at under 150,000 of some 400,000 eligible.

On 28 December mosque imams appealed for voter participation.

Nationwide over three million Saudis are said to be eligible out of a population of some 24m.

Will there be monitors?

In January, four "civilian organisations", including the National Human Rights Organisation and the Committee of Journalists, were enlisted to monitor the poll.

An official said monitoring would be according to international norms, with three observers at each polling station.

There is also a four-member Appeals Committee.

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