Saudi candidates kick off election campaigns

Women are running for public office for the first time in the kingdom
Friday 11/12/2015
Saudi woman candidate Fawzia al-Harbi next to a male chaperone

JEDDAH - Official campaigning for municipal elections in Saudi Arabia has begun and for the first time women are running for public office, ushering in a new era of female participation in the king­dom’s decision-making process.

The December 12th elections mark the first time women in the kingdom have run for office since a 2011 order by the late King Abdul­lah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. “We’re making history,” candidate Haifa al-Hababi told the BBC. Her genera­tion, she said, “will bring change”.

However, the Saudi democratic experiment has not gone off with­out snags. A number of potential candidates complained of being disqualified from campaigning for no apparent reason.

Among the candidates barred from seeking election are three well-known women’s rights activ­ists, one of whom has previously been detained for challenging the kingdom-wide ban on female driv­ing.

Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested by Saudi border police in December 2014 when she attempted driving into the kingdom from the United Arab Emirates. She was pardoned by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in February.

Other female candidates who were dropped from the list of au­thorised candidates include driv­ing activist Tamadour al-Yami and human rights activist Nassima al- Sadah, who both vowed to appeal the ban.

A number of the disqualified can­didates have decided to lodge com­plaints with the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Municipal and Ru­ral Affairs and the Board of Griev­ances, an independent administra­tive judicial committee that reports directly to the king.

The candidates are demanding explanations for why their names were removed from the list of par­ticipants without apparent justifi­cation, warning or official notifica­tion. They said they only found out they were disqualified a day before the campaign was to begin.

Mohammed al-Turki, a barred candidate for the Eastern Prov­ince, said he was stunned to learn his name had been removed from the list of approved participants, calling the decision to do so “ar­bitrary.” He said he did not violate any campaign regulations.

Turki stressed that the method­ology used by the General Elec­tions Commission was not sound, the latest example of which saw the release of the final list of can­didates in an untimely fashion. Candidates had spent a significant amount of money and exerted a lot of time and effort only to find out a day before official campaigning started that they had been disqual­ified. Turki lodged an official com­plaint but said he has yet to receive a reply.

These are the third municipal elections in the kingdom since 2005. Approximately 7,000 candi­dates, including some 900 women, are contesting 284 municipal coun­cil seats.

Candidates have been actively campaigning on both traditional and new media, with posters dis­played in areas where candidates are campaigning for votes. How­ever, noticeably absent from the campaign were pictures of the can­didates, which the election com­mittee banned both sexes from displaying.

In mid-November, head of the Executive Committee for the Mu­nicipal Council Elections Judeea Al-Qahtani asked both male and female candidates not to use their images on campaign posters and to refrain from the use of slogans and symbolic images including the national flag. Qahtani also warned against offensive and sectarian lan­guage.

Other restrictions include a ban on television campaigning, insult­ing voters or other candidates, se­ditious language and hate speech. Campaigning is only permissible in Arabic.

According to government fig­ures, approximately 130,000 wom­en have registered to vote but their participation has not been univer­sally welcomed.

In a Twitter exchange that encap­sulated the difference of opinion over female participation in Saudi politics, a male Twitter user wrote that “A nation fails if their leader is a woman,” only to be rebuked by a female user who responded: “So Britain and Germany failed and the Arab states were victorious with their men.”