King Abdullah says women will be allowed to run as candidates in municipal polls and will even have a right to vote.
Saudi men have voted in a nationwide election for local council representatives in Saudi Arabia’s the only second election ever, but polling booths have been empty, showing very low enthusiasm and poor turnout.
Officials said 1.08 million Saudi men of the country’s 18 million population registered to vote this year. However, Al Jazeera Mohamed Vall, reporting from Riyadh on Thursday, said no more than 300,000 men registered.
“People who came to register for [this year’s] elections were not more than 300,000 and the election commission saw that, and automatically copied another 700 or 800,000 people who are registered in the previous 2005 elections,” he said.
“You can see by comparison that less and less people are interested, even to register for voting, [as can be seen in] the turnout today. The low turnout shows that the people are less and less interested to vote.”
Half the seats on municipal councils, which have very limited power, were up for Thursday’s election. The rest are appointed by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Although Abdullah announced on Sunday that women can vote and stand for office in future elections, they will have to wait until 2015.
A few advertisements in newspapers and a handful of posters were among rare clues visible that the election was happening, which has been labelled by critics as a charade.
In Saudi Arabia’s first municipal election, held in 2006, only half of the people who registered to vote cast a ballot.
The municipal council’s limited role includes approving a budget, suggesting planning regulations and overseeing city projects, Abdul Rahman Gannam, the election committee information officer in Jeddah, said.
That lack of power may explain the absence of election enthusiasm noticeable on Jeddah’s streets this week.
Earlier this year, as uprisings gripped many countries in the Arab world, Abdullah offered citizens a package of social benefits worth more than $130bn and lent troops to help neighbouring Bahrain put down protests by its Shia Muslim majority.
“The king is trying to give some concessions to another trend that is growing in the kingdom – a trend of those who want reforms,” Al Jazeera’s Vall said.
“They want more human rights for women, they want equality between men and women, and the international community also is behind this trend. So [the king] is trying to strike a very delicate balance.”
Saudi Arabia has no political parties, while members of its Shura Council are appointed by the royal family and have only advisory powers.
The royal family dominates crucial government posts and ministers are appointed by the king.