Saudis in East, South Vote in Elections

Saudi Arabian men lined up in the east and the south to vote for local councilmen Thursday, hopeful and nervous about their first taste of democracy in the latest stage of the kingdom's unprecedented nationwide elections.

Underlining their excitement, men in the eastern city of Qatif (search) on the Gulf coast had called each other to arrange wake-up calls so they wouldn't oversleep, election worker Ibrahim al-Marhoun (search) said.

"Today feels like a big feast," al-Marhoun, a 32-year-old worker at the municipality in Qatif, a center of Saudi Arabia's 3 to 4 million-strong Shiite Muslim (search) minority.

The head of one voting station said he was surprised to find more than 100 people lined up at the site at 5:30 a.m., almost three hours before polls opened.

For Saudis, the municipal vote is a concrete, albeit tiny, step -- an opportunity to communicate their needs -- in a reform process no one had expected in Saudi Arabia, where power sharing was at one point a taboo subject.

But the Shiite community centered in the Eastern Province, which has long complained of discrimination by majority Sunnis and is despised by Sunni extremists, hopes for an additional advantage.

"Now, we can push for our rights through the people we elect," Marhoun said. The elections mean "we will be making demands with one voice."

In Thursday's vote, the second of three stages in the election, more than 206,650 voters have registered and 800 candidates were running in the Eastern Province. In the south, about 115,000 voters have signed up and more than 1,700 candidates were running. Results were not expected before Saturday.

Shiites are expected to sweep all five seats in Qatif and half of the six seats in the mixed Al-Hasa area. But in other urban districts in the province, Sunnis are expected to have clear wins.

Next month's third stage of elections will cover the western and northern regions, including the holy cities of Mecca and Madina, and the central region of Qassim. The first stage was held Feb. 10 in the capital, Riyadh, and nearby towns.

Both Sunni and Shiite voters hope the elections will give them a voice to press for better infrastructure and services in their neighborhoods. Saudis, wearing traditional white robes called thobes and red-and-white checkered headdresses, also lined up outside polling stations in the eastern city of Khobar.

"This is a national duty and we should participate in it," said Ahmed Ba Zakama, a 52-year-old shift superintendent at the giant Aramco oil company. "We hope that the people we choose will relay our ideas and proposals to the authorities."

At polling station 320, a sprawling boys' high school, about 50 men sat in green plastic chairs or on the ground or milled about in the playground waiting to get into the building to vote.

"I feel anxious. "It's a first process," said Fouad al-Ahmad, a 42-year-old technician in a petrochemical plant.

"Are the candidates going to keep their promises? Are there going to be barriers to their efforts?" he said, holding a newspaper that listed all candidates in his district.

Asked if he would like the democratic process to go as far as it has gone in Lebanon, where the government fell Monday as a result of popular pressure and peaceful demonstrations, al-Ahmad said: "To me, what happened in Lebanon was chaos."

He said in a conservative country like Saudi Arabia, where protests are banned, "this choice of the people is not going to be adequate for our society."

"We need controlled democracy," that blends elections with the old tradition of directly appealing to members of the royal family to resolve issues, he added.

Muhammad al-Yami, a 28-year-old English language teacher, disagreed.

"I hope we will reach this degree of democracy," he said, referring to Lebanon.

Hamad al-Suwayyegh, 62, retired, said he chose candidates he knows are "good Muslims."

"Those people will keep their promises and will work for the good of the people and not for their own interests," he said.

What will he do with his green voter registration card, which many voters in Riyadh said they would keep as a souvenir? "Throw it away. I have no use for it anymore."

The elections are for about 600 of some 1,200 council members around the nation. The rest will be appointed. Women have been banned from voting and running.

The kingdom came under pressure from the West, especially the United States, to reform after the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by 19 Arabs, 15 of whom were Saudi. That provided a catalyst for progressive Saudis who have been pressing for democratic changes for years. Those calling for reforms believe that democratic change will counter the influence of Islamic militancy.

The elections are part of the kingdom's measured response to the calls for change. They will give Saudis the chance to participate in decision making in the kingdom, an absolute monarchy, which has an unelected Consultative Council that acts like a parliament. Political parties are banned and press freedoms are limited.