Riyadh Wears A Festive Look For Municipal Elections

RIYADH, 10 February 2005 — The government has made its preparations; the candidates have stumped on the campaign trail. Now it’s time for registered voters to, well, vote.

More than 200 election observers will monitor the historic municipal elections today in the capital city besides a large contingent of Election Commission officials and security officials.

The poll officials and the candidates said here that the elections observers have been drawn from different independent, non-governmental organizations, including the National Society for Human Rights and Saudi Journalists Association.

A number of candidates and voters said the landmark election has created a new atmosphere in the capital, which gives a festive look since last Saturday. Some poll officials and the candidates termed the election as a “cultural carnival” unprecedented in the history of the Kingdom. They said election fever has gripped the capital, where polling begins this morning to decide the fate of 646 candidates currently in the fray.

“Thursday’s poll is seen as a concrete step in a reform process no one had expected,” said Khaled Al-Gunaim, a voter in the Sixth Electoral District.

Many candidates agree with Al-Ghunaim’s views, but they say they are running because they are willing to pursue a political career in future. Many of them hope that the next step will be election of the Shoura Council, which gradually is being given wider powers by the government.

Al-Gunaim said the whole electoral process has been very transparent. Even UN election expert Dr. Ali Aljarbawi has praised the ongoing first phase of the elections, said a candidate, who requested anonymity.

Dr. Aljarbawi recently made some remarks commending the poll arrangements following a random inspection tour of several electoral districts in the city of Riyadh (http://www.saudinf.com/main/a81.htm).

“The mechanism of voter registration, the voting devices and the technologies used in the elections are among the best preparations anywhere in the world for such an occasion,” Dr. Aljarbawi said. “In fact, the process of elections has been very transparent so far, and the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs deserves all appreciation for organizing the election in such a manner,” said Ali Al-Gharani, another voter who works for a local transportation company.

Al-Gharani said the experiment with democracy has made great strides with today’s historic municipal polls.

“This in itself is a positive outcome of the elections, regardless of who wins,” said one candidate, referring to the government move to allow daily meetings, speeches and campaign posters on the streets of Riyadh.

“The election pamphlets, which were considered illegal earlier, were widely distributed by all the candidates,” said another contestant as a boy passed by distributing leaflets carrying the candidate’s election platform.

Only 37 percent of more than 400,000 eligible male voters reportedly registered to vote in the capital and the surrounding regions — an area that has about five million inhabitants. Women, who make up more than 50 percent of the population, have been banned from participating in the election.

The number of candidates exceeds 1,800, with 646 in the capital alone to fill just half of its 14-seat municipal council. The electoral exercise seems to have led some overexcited candidates to make unrealistic promises.

• One candidate in a poor southern neighborhood promises to transform it to the “New Dubai, visited by tourists from everywhere.” Another plank in that platform is to treat the sewage that floods neighborhood streets to “create a massive lake where jet-ski races will be held and create a resort for all the people of Riyadh” (and the thousands of new tourists, of course).

• Another candidate vows potholes and overflowing sewage will be the matters of past in the capital city, if he’s elected.

• A candidate, who was helping his men to remove the tents this morning after the conclusion of his campaign, pledged: “I will make Riyadh the best city in the world.” There were other claims too numerous to print here.

• Another candidate, whose tent was located barely a kilometer away, however, simply said he was driven by nationalistic duty to run.

Whether for nationalistic duty or for a chance to visit Jet-Ski Lake in the New Dubai, now it’s up to the registered voters to cast their ballots.

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