RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Male voters converged at polling stations in the Riyadh (search) region on Thursday to participate in city elections, marking the first time Saudis are taking part in a vote that largely conforms to international standards. Women were banned from casting ballots.
Some voters were optimistic that the elections would lead to further reforms in this country tightly ruled by the Saudi royal family and often criticized by international human rights activists.
"This was a wonderful moment," said Badr al-Faqih, a 54-year-old geography professor, moments after submitting the first ballot at one polling station. "This is a first step toward more elections."
Suleiman al-Ondus, 70, turned to an official with a big smile on his face when he saw a female reporter. "Have you changed your mind? Are you now allowing women to vote? I want to bring my wife," the man said.
When told the woman was a journalist, the elderly man told the reporter, "I feel a lot of pain because women cannot participate in the vote."
Women were banned both from voting and running in the election, which represents a small political reform in this absolute monarchy. The first of the three-stage elections are only for half the country's municipal councils.
Abdul Rahman al-Hussein, 53, a school principal, said he went to the polling station early to be among the first voter. "This is patriotic participation. I want this campaign to succeed," he said.
For all the attention, the elections were limited to selection of some city officials and not national leaders. As a result, some voters had limited expectations for the councilmen they had to choose.
Al-Hussein said he chose his candidate based on the promises he made during the campaign, the biggest of which was to build playgrounds.
More than 1,800 candidates were contesting 127 seats in the capital and surrounding villages on Thursday, with almost 700 of them running for seven seats in Riyadh. Only 149,000 out of 600,000 eligible voters have registered to vote. Two more phases will cover the rest of the country in March and April.
Ahmed al-Sayyegh, 46, a researcher, said it was difficult to choose from the list of hundreds of candidates, especially since the campaign was only 12 days long and people did not have enough time to get to know the candidates.
"This is a modest beginning but it is not enough. We want to have representatives who are all elected and no appointed members," he said.
Some voters were confused about the process and had to be helped by officials. One enthusiastic voter made the V for victory sign as he picked up his ballot card.
Ahmed al-Khalifa, a civil servant, said after voting, "This has been a unique experience. I did not want to register in the first place because I did not take the elections seriously. But I was afraid I would regret not registering and now I am glad I did."
Al-Khalifa said he wants to frame his registration card as a souvenir. He said he hoped the candidate he voted for would work to improve the infrastructure and lighting in his neighborhood in Riyadh.
Abdul Nasser al-Zahrani, 46, an archaeology professor, said: "This is the beginning of a new era. We now know what elections are and what it means to make your voice heard through proper channels. It is the beginning of democracy."
Asked about the fact that half of the members will be appointed, he said, "This is a first step and it is good as a first step but it should be followed by more steps."
Asked to compare this experience with voting in Iraq, Kutaiba al-Saddoun, 47, a wildlife conservation specialist, said, "In Iraq, the election was to establish a new life to move the country from instability to stability. Here, the vote is to develop an already stable life."
At another polling station in an elementary school, officials checking names of voters sat in front of children's drawings. Voters proceeded to an indoor basketball court to cast ballots.
Abdullah al-Muhadib, 43, an auditor, said he was very happy with the experience but he would not have allowed his wife to vote if the government had permitted women to vote. "She is a queen at home but I am in charge of what takes place outside the house," he said.
Abdul Aziz al-Ghanam, 45, a land surveyor, had a different opinion. "A woman is a man's sister. I would not have had a problem with my wife voting," he said.
A candidate for office, Bandar al-Fakir, stood outside the tent watching as voters left. Asked how he will feel if he lost, al-Fakir said, "I would be happy if I won and I would also be happy if I lost. The important thing here is for the process to succeed."
Election officials said partial results could be ready as soon as Thursday night, but final results may not be released until Friday or Saturday.