Saudis go to polls but women still excluded

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The Independent Online

Voters go to the polls in Saudi Arabia today in the kingdom's first nationwide election - but no women will be among them, and no female candidates will be on the ballot.

Voters go to the polls in Saudi Arabia today in the kingdom's first nationwide election - but no women will be among them, and no female candidates will be on the ballot.

The ruling House of Saud, one of the world's strictest absolute monarchies, and the key US ally in the Middle East, has billed the municipal election as a "progressive step", but reformers are unimpressed.

While nothing in election law prohibits women being involved - and a number of candidates had entered early campaigning - authorities banned them on a technicality after deciding it would be unacceptable to religious conservatives. Washington has trumpeted the participation of women in recent Afghan and Iraqi elections, but has not criticised the Saudi's gender bar.

Badriyah al-Bisher, a female columnist writing against the ban, said that it would "consolidate the inferior look that society gives them [women]." She made an analogy between the exclusion and the ban on women driving. "We've been dumped in the back seat again, and only a man is allowed to drive us."

The three-phase poll begins in the capital, Riyadh, where Saudi men will be invited to elect half of the members to local councils. The remaining seats will be filled by royal appointment, and the councillors' powers have yet to be defined. All key ministerial posts are held by crown princes and the unelected parliament's role is purely consultative.

Mai Yamani, a research fellow at Chatham House, said today's "partial elections" were "too little too late". The response from potential voters has been lukewarm at best, with fewer than one-third of those eligible having registered. "The rulers want to say this is because they are satisfied ... but the low interest shows people don't see anything tangible changing," Ms Yamani said.

Candidates have not been in short supply, however, with as many as 100 per seat in Riyadh. Saudis have been assailed by Western-style campaign tactics including posters, text messages and newspaper advertisements.

Analysts point out that, in the absence of political parties, many candidates are simply businessmen engaged in self-promotion rather than politics.

But the Saudi Minister for Labour, Ghazi Algosaibi, defended the importance of the vote: "Although such a step appears small and humble, it carries many indications ... These elections are a leading experience, the success of which will determine following steps."

Previous attempts to propose gradual reform have hit a dead end and in some cases those called on for ideas have found themselves imprisoned. As the ballot boxes are opened, protesters are still calling for the release of three senior reformers who were jailed last March after petitioning for a constitutional monarchy.

Crown Prince Abdullah initially welcomed their ideas, including an elected council, an independent judiciary, freedom of expression and a greater role for women, which were put to him in a series of petitions. But when the reform lobby continued to press for concrete progress towards accountable government and constitutional monarchy, the rulers lost patience.

Twelve organisers were arrested. Most were later released, but only after signing away any right to make public statements.

Public unrest has been rising in the birthplace of Islam where unemployment, unofficially estimated to be as high as 30 per cent, has fuelled anger at lavish spending by the royals.

Ms Yamani said that staging a "theatrical performance" in place of a meaningful poll risked sending out the message that "change will not come at the ballot box." The Saudi government has been struggling to contain militants who have targeted the government and Westerners in a series of deadly attacks since May 2003.

The state ruled last year that any public employee who criticises policy in public or signs petitions faces losing their job.