RIYADH, 11 February 2005 — An estimated 82 percent of registered voters cast their ballots yesterday as historic polling began on a moderate note at 73 polling stations across this sprawling capital city, election officials and voters said.

A large number of voters were seen queuing up at the polling booths in different districts of the city in the historic elections that have considerable significance for this region in general and the world in particular.

“Over 60 percent of the eligible voters who had registered for this station had cast ballots by the time voting ended,” said Mishal Al-Qasabi, the agent of a candidate at Polling Station No. 22 in the Rawdah district.

Some voters and officials contradicted this claim and offered conflicting lower or higher numbers for the turnout at Rawdah station, where 2,425 voters are registered. They also noted that the overall turnout in the city appears to be near 82 percent.

Election Commission officials offered no overall figures of the actual number of voters.

“There was a heavy turnout at different polling centers, especially in the Al-Naseem district, where youths in particular were seen in huge numbers casting their votes,” said Turki Faisal Al-Rasheed, webmaster of www.saudielection.com.

Dr. Sultan Al-Salem, a voter at Polling Center No. 6, said that the turnout appeared to be high in many areas but that it was too early to know for sure.

Dr. Al-Salem said at least 70 to 80 percent of 150,000 voters turned up throughout the nine-hour polling.

“Ignorance and carelessness are two important factors contributing to the apathy on the part of a section of voters,” Dr. Al-Salem said when asked about the causes of poor registration and subsequently the moderate turnout. He said, however, that voting picked up by midday at many polling centers in the capital city.

The polling took place in a relaxed atmosphere and amid low-key security with great enthusiasm, he added.

“This was a wonderful experience to see people voting in great numbers,” said Dr. Hamad Al-Kanhal, an associate professor at King Saud University. “This municipal election is the beginning of something bigger — a substantial political reform in our country,” he said, moments after submitting his ballot at Polling Station No. 62 near the KSU campus.

“I have voted for all seven candidates,” said Dr. Al-Kanhal. “One can vote for six or even a fewer number of candidates, and the ballot will be still valid,” he said. “However, a ballot will be counted invalid in case a voter would have marked more than seven names.”

Dr. Ibrahim Al-Qahtani of Al-Mejdab Group was happy with the voter turnout. “The government, in fact, was giving chances to the citizens to work, to share power and to bear responsibilities in running the affairs of the state,” he said.

“After a few years, there will be more elected representatives and more elections for higher bodies like this.”

“Well, it is an excellent start with high turnout of voters; there was no rigging, no chaos and no confusion like many other countries where elections take place,” said a Saudi executive of a local company.

Although there are 698 candidates in the fray, the electoral battle was mainly confined between a handful of candidates, who represent the capital’s business gentry, Islamic groups and academic sector.

“This is the first time that people can really participate in public life outside the mosques to discuss social, economic and also municipal problems and to solve them by themselves,” the executive said.

It also is noteworthy that when polls started, election officials opened the long gray ballot boxes and held them up for observers and agents to see that they were empty. The boxes were then closed, locked and sealed with masking tape.

Voters at all polling stations had to wait in a queue outside before they were allowed one by one to collect the ballot paper. Then, they were told how to vote. The manual process required voters to mark names on the seven-page ballots before folding and dropping them into the boxes.

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