The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing its third round of municipal elections. The first round was held in 2005 to much fanfare, whilst the second was slated for 2009 but in fact delayed until 2011. Women were excluded in those first two municipal elections. The participation of women only became possible this third time around, after a royal decree by Saudi’s previous ruling monarch, King Abdullah.
With the exception of the inclusion of women, these elections faced a great deal of apathy, mainly because they are elections for municipalities that only concern urban development. Some see it as a distraction from demanding basic rights and more influential political participation. Others believe that these elections are held mainly for international media consumption to improve Saudi’s image abroad. Moreover, the elections are only for two-thirds of local council seats while the other third, as well as the head of the municipality, are appointed by the government. Thus, potential winners are unlikely to have much executive power. This has not stopped candidates from making promises and running under manifestos that show that they aspire for much more than they have the authority to deliver. Some of these include the promise to open up employment opportunities and to end corruption.
When voters went to the polls, 1,486,477 men and 124,544 women had registered to vote, with 979 female candidates and 5938 male candidates competing for 2106 seats across the country. The low degree of women’s participation was due to difficulties to getting to registration centers, as women are banned from driving and there is no public transportation. Proof of residency is another obstacle that has deterred women from registering because most women in Saudi Arabia do not own property. Consequently, women not only have to provide proof of residency but also proof of relationship with the male owner of the property they live in.
The aforementioned numbers are after 450 candidates withdrew and over 100 were eliminated by the government for various reasons. Those who withdrew cited the limited time of 12 days with which they had to campaign, as well as the campaign restrictions that were announced after their candidacy application. Candidates are not allowed to use their photos in their campaigns nor campaign on TV channels. Strict gender segregation rules are imposed with fines for violations. Female candidates are not allowed to interact directly with male voters, but instead either employ a male representative to meet and speak with male voters on their behalf or use sound systems to address male voters from a separate room. The same applies to male candidates, but this is unlikely to affect their chances considering that the majority of voters are men.
This is not the first time that candidates have been eliminated from standing. In 2005, Salman Al Sulayman was taken out of the running because he included his support for lifting the ban on women driving in his campaign. This time around, some candidates were disqualified for violating the rules. Others were eliminated without being given any reason other than that their removal was decided through unnamed “governmental jurisdictions.” Those who were given the latter reason all have a history of activism. Female candidates, Tamadur Al Yami and Loujain Al Hathloul, had been involved in the October 26 movement to allow women to drive. Al Yami’s car is still impounded because she drove it herself rather than employing a male driver on December 28 in 2013. Al Hathloul spent 73 days last year in a women’s detention center for driving a car.
Regardless of these municipal elections’ shortcomings, there’s no denying that they are a step forward. Democracy in Saudi Arabia, in all its forms, is a foreign concept. Until recently, even at the school and university levels, any form of suffrage was frowned upon. Due to these municipal elections, there is now a system in place to run national elections with over 35,000 Saudis trained to register voters and set up voting centers. These could be expanded and utilized for more substantial offices than municipal council seats.