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Voters Disenchanted In Upcoming Saudi Election

Registration is under way in Saudi Arabia for a national election this September to fill seats on nearly 300 municipal councils.

It's only the third time in the kingdom's history that a nationwide vote is taking place. And it comes at a time when citizens in other Arab countries are rising up to demand democratic reforms.

In Saudi Arabia, only men can vote, and only men can serve on the councils.

Few people are signing up to vote, and some Saudis are dismissing the upcoming elections as a gimmick.

The Last Election

Local businessman Turki Faisal al Rasheed beams as he recalls the last elections for Saudi municipal councils back in 2005.

He says it was the first time in four decades a Saudi king had decided to let his subjects choose who they wanted to represent them, at least on local matters. Still, many people were unenthused and had to be persuaded to cast ballots.

We look at this as holding an election for the sake of election. These people have no mandates whatsoever.

The skeptics felt there was little point to electing someone to a council with no purpose other than to advise local officials, Rasheed explains. Plus, half of the council seats were already filled by government appointees.

So Rasheed formed the Saudi Voter Center to encourage people to take part in those elections.

"A lot of people are saying it's nothing," he says. "But come on, if you have a patient who laid in bed for 40 years and then he moved his feet, I mean you go, 'Wow he moved his feet, we are so excited.' So we took the first step. And I honestly thought that, well, a lot of people thought there were a lot of steps coming after that."

Those steps, such as increasing the role of the councils, extending the vote to women and reducing the voting age from 21 to 18, never happened, he says.

So he's not surprised that few Saudis are showing up at voter registration centers this time around.

A Call For A Boycott

Some Saudis criticize the councils for not addressing the basic needs of people they are supposed to represent. For example, the council in the Red Sea city of Jeddah is under attack for failing to persuade officials to replace or fix shoddy infrastructure that is blamed for deadly floods there.

Other Saudis, like Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani, dismiss the upcoming election as a gimmick designed to distract people from pursuing meaningful political reform in the kingdom. Qahtani heads the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in Riyadh.

"Let me give you maybe the most pessimistic view," he sys. "We look at this as holding an election for the sake of election. These people have no mandates whatsoever. I mean, the one who holds the ultimate authority is the mayor, and the mayor is appointed."

Qahtani is one of several activists calling on their fellow Saudis to boycott the polls.

At the same time he lauds dozens of Saudi women who have been going to voter registration centers across Saudi Arabia even though they are banned from casting ballots or running in government-sponsored elections.

Officials in Riyadh say there isn't enough time to set up a system for women to cast ballots, let alone run for office in this patriarchal society where the sexes are strictly segregated.

Never mind that the elections scheduled for September are already two years overdue.

'It Means I Have An Identity'

Eleven women recently turned up at a registration center inside a boy's school in downtown Riyadh. They demanded officials there issue them voter cards for the fall elections. But the officials refused.

One is 21-year-old Ruba. She asked that her last name not be used to protect her family from any backlash. The university student says she will not give up trying to sign up for the elections.

"The right to vote — it means I have an identity," she says. "People — they consider me a citizen equal to men, lawfully. That's really it."

Saudi women are frustrated because the government reneged on its promise to let women take part in this round, says Saudi columnist Asmaa Al-Mohamed.

She says during the last polls, Saudi women formed groups to spread awareness about the importance of female suffrage. Mohamed adds that some women have since been elected to posts within Saudi chambers of commerce and professional societies.

But she says these groups fail to connect with the larger population of rural and illiterate women.

Few here think the government will rescind the ban on women or otherwise address grievances Saudis have about the elections.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.