A box-ticking exercise

Saudi men went to the polls on 29 September to elect municipal councils, but real democratic reform is still far away. Published in MEED, 14 October 2011

Saudi citizens were treated to the rare sight of polling booths opening around the country on 29 September, as the kingdom held its second elections for municipal councils in six years. The polling booths were open from 8am until 5pm, but it remains unclear just how many took advantage of the chance to vote.

About 1.2 million people registered to vote during a four-week spell in April and May, out of a total population of 18.7 million nationals – 9.5 million of whom are men. Excluding males under the voting age of 21, about 4.4 million people could have registered to vote, meaning that even if every registered voter went to the polls, the turnout could not have been higher than 27 per cent of the local population.

Poor electoral turnout

As yet no official figures have yet been released for the turnout on the day, but local media reports have suggested that the turnout was often very low in the 752 polling stations that opened around the country.

If the authorities want to use elections as a means to bolster their own legitimacy, it seems that they will have to work far harder to convince people of the merits of voting. Several initiatives announced before and after the election suggest that they are at least looking for ways to do that, notably through extending the franchise to women in time for the next vote. But reform is a slow process in Saudi Arabia.

The muted nature of this year’s campaign is in contrast to the way in which the previous poll was greeted in 2005, when local enthusiasm for the municipal council elections was far greater, according to analysts.

“When they held the first municipal elections, people were extremely hopeful,” says Alanoud al-Sharekh, senior fellow for regional politics at the Middle East office of the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There was a sense of euphoria, of heightened expectations that things were changing, that political rights were filtering down from the ruling elite to the population.”

There are several reasons why that initial level of euphoria has not been sustained. One of the most significant problems is the lack of power that the municipal councils are able to exercise. Unelected arms of government remain in ultimate control. Even if the municipal councils had far more clout nationals are still only able to vote for half of the councillors, while the other half are directly appointed by the government.

Such issues help to explain why so few men bothered to even register, let alone vote. It also helps to explain why, according to some media reports, the vast majority of councillors did not seek re-election this year.

It does not mean, however, that the Saudi people are averse to democracy. Elections for other, more influential bodies, such as those for the chambers of commerce and industry in Riyadh, Jeddah and the Eastern Province, are held in far higher regard according to observers, not least because of what they offer in terms of business opportunities.

“The municipal councils are not really that prestigious and it doesn’t guarantee you privileged access to the business community or international business,” says Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, author of a study on the 2005 elections for the UK’s London School of Economics. “The councils have so little power, with half of the council seats appointed by the government. It doesn’t touch the key decision-makers at any level.

“There was a lot of disillusionment among sitting members of the councils about the experience [after the 2005 election]. The number of candidates [this year] is significantly down from last time and voter registration numbers are also down.”

Restricted campaigning in Saudi Arabia

A further issue is the tight restrictions imposed on the election campaigns, which are overseen by the National Electoral Commission, currently chaired by Abdel Rahman al-Dahmash.

Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia and candidates are barred from forming any kind of alliance, although a similar rule in 2005 did not prevent some informal groups emerging, notably a so-called “Golden List” of conservative candidates backed by some clerics, which was promoted through a text messaging campaign. Tribal affiliations also proved important in some parts of the country.

“There was a tribal element in the 2005 elections, certainly in the rural areas, and then in the more urban centres it was liberal against more conservative, Islamist candidates,” says Kraetzschmar.

“What mobilised supporters was the backing of some of the clerics in the country. They sent around text messages saying these are the candidates, who are living the right life. That played a significant role, certainly in the more urban areas.” This year candidates were barred from any text messaging campaigns and from using TV or radio advertising.

Campaigns could only be carried out for a short period before polling day and had to be approved in advance. Newspaper and billboard advertising was allowed, but adverts could not contain pictures, words or symbols that violated religion, morality or public order. After some candidates offered lavish hospitality during the 2005 campaign, this year there were also restrictions on what they could offer in that regard.

Losing appeal to younger voters

The restrictive nature of campaigns has meant candidates have struggled to appeal to younger voters in particular. According to research carried out by Riyadh-based Asbar Center for Studies, Research & Communications in the wake of the 2005 election, older Saudi nationals have shown far more enthusiasm for being involved in electing their councillors. Some 73 per cent of men aged 46 or older registered to vote that year, compared with 40 per cent of those aged 21-29 years and 29 per cent of those between 30 and 40 years old.

They are at least able to register and vote if they want to, however. This year, as in 2005, women were barred from voting for councillors or standing as candidates themselves. Yet, this should change in the future.

The run-up to this year’s poll was enlivened by a statement from King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on 25 September that women would be given the vote, although not until the next election, which is due in 2015. He also promised them full participation in future in the shura council, an advisory body, which is wholly appointed by the government.

“After consultations with many of our scholars … we have decided the following,” the king said in a speech to the council. “First, the participation of women in the Majlis al-Shura as members from next session in accordance with the sharia guidelines.

“Second, as of the next session, women will have the right to nominate themselves for membership of municipal councils, and also have the right to participate in the nomination of candidates with the Islamic guidelines.”

Outside observers were quick to praise the move. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, welcomed the new policy, saying it represented “an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia”.

Other international powers, including the governments of UK, France and Germany, have made similar noises of approval.

Such changes have been promised before and the mechanics of the reform have yet to be announced, but there is a precedent in the kingdom. Women already actively participate in elections for the chambers of commerce, both standing for election and voting. The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, for example, currently has three women on its board of directors, including Lama Abdulaziz al-Sulainman who is one of two deputy chairpersons. The Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce also has two women on its board, Hana al-Zuhair and Samira al-Suwaigh, although both were appointed.

The 150-seat shura council has now set up a committee tasked with bringing in the new arrangements for its membership in the wake of the king’s speech. However, there is already some involvement by women in the council, according to Al-Sharekh, although it is on a more informal basis.

“They’ve talked about this [votes for women] before; we’ve been hearing this since 2005,” she says. “Women [already] participate in the shura council. Because of segregation issues they’re not in the same room as the men.

“They attend meetings, but in a separate room and give their input over a microphone, so it’s not a very integrated participation. They have more like an observer status, not full participation. What we’re being promised now is full participation, which should be interesting just because the logistics of segregation are so entrenched within that society.”

Slow political reform

The speed of political reform in Saudi Arabia is never quick, but the slow move towards a more accountable and democratic system appears all the more glacial in the current political environment. While citizens in other countries in the region have been forcefully taking control of the levers of power, in the Gulf, this control remains closely held by the monarchs.

The fact that two elections have now been held in six years offers a good base for further reforms and extending the franchise to women could help to reinvigorate the electoral process. However, what is really needed if the elections are to become meaningful and attract a wider, more enthusiastic electorate is for the municipal councils themselves to be given far greater powers. That is likely to be a reform too far for the authorities in Riyadh.

“We’ve seen in other Arab countries that if we were to focus on the analysis of elections in order to understand the propensity for democratic change, we are running into a dead end,” says Kraetzschmar. “Elections are mostly used for external consumption and domestic legitimisation.”