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First National Elections for Saudis Excites Voters, Excludes Women

By Neil Macfarquhar

The New York Times -- RIYADH, Saudi Arabia

The voters came -- princes and the impoverished, young and old, the highly educated and the illiterate -- Saudi males casting their ballots Thursday in the initial stage of the kingdom’s first nationwide elections.

Women were barred and widespread apathy during the December registration meant just 149,000 eligible voters out of almost 600,000 in the capital district were on the rolls.

But the electric atmosphere generated by the unprecedented campaigns of the past 12 days prompted voters at some polling stations to stand in line -- unusual in Saudi Arabia -- to cast their ballots for half the seats in rather toothless municipal councils.

“Normally, any Saudi would get edgy waiting in these lines for 30 minutes, they don’t like it, but they will get used to it,” said Mohammed al-Nofeyi, the director of a polling station at a middle school in a low income neighborhood in southern Riyadh.

Turnout figures were not immediately available. Prince Mansour bin Mutaab bin Abdel Aziz, a professor of public administration at King Saud University who supervised the election planning, described early reporting as showing a “reasonable” turnout across the capital region.

At one polling station in the Maather neighborhood -- an older, upscale district of vast, walled compounds where many princes live -- some 700 of the 976 voters registered there had shown up by the time the polls closed at 5 p.m. A few stragglers were allowed through the doors to fill out their paper ballots.

In the relatively poor neighborhood where Nofeyi was watching the rolls, just under 1,000 out of 1,392 registered voters had shown up by 2 p.m., with the long lines forming under crisp blue winter skies right after noon prayers.

“It should have happened a long time ago, but it’s a beautiful feeling that one’s voice counts,” said Fahd al-Hamady, a 26-year-old bank employee.

Those not taking part said they stayed away because they viewed the entire process as far too small a step toward democratic reform.

“What’s the purpose of the elections?” said Badr al-Oteiby, a 23-year-old student majoring in Arabic at King Saud University who said he had registered but was not voting. “It won’t do anything. Everything will stay the same, there will be no improvement, and there will be nothing new. It’s become a game, not real elections.”

The three-stage elections, which end in April, are for half the seats in 178 councils across the kingdom, with 38 councils in the capital region the object of Thursday’s vote. The other half of the members and the mayor will continue to be appointed, ensuring that elected councilors remain a minority.

Senior government officials said this was necessary to guarantee that the councils retained the necessary expertise to run the cities, and because democracy had to be introduced gradually in a conservative, tribal culture.

“The steps have to come slowly so the society can accept it,” said the mayor of Riyadh, Prince Abdel Aziz bin Mohammed bin Ayaf al-Mugrin, who spent the day circulating among various polling stations. “But there is no going back.”

The prince cited the late Shah of Iran as an example of a ruler who pushed modernization on his people too fast and paid the price by losing his throne.