Saudi women prepare for August elections
JEDDAH - A grass-roots effort has sprung up to register women to vote in August municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and to address challenges facing first-time voters.
But the presence of women at the polls is expected to have little impact on the make-up of the councils with the perception being that they have little political power and are not responsive to females’ concerns.
King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud granted women the right to vote in 2011 and the next year it was announced that they could do so and run as candidates in the 2015 elections.
One Saudi university academic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she has no plans to vote, though, because there was little evidence that councils would be representative of her and other women.
“Will my council in Jeddah build parks and clean up the trash in my neighbourhood? They haven’t so far,” she said. “Will they build libraries and make neighbourhoods family-friendly? There is no transparency and no evidence that they are responsive to my needs.”
Fatin Bundagji, co-founder of the Baladi Initiative, an advocacy group that helps women win positions in public office, said she sympathises with those who view voting as a hopeless exercise.
“I totally understand where they are coming from,” she said. “In a closed society like ours this is the perspective they have. It doesn’t mean we keep quiet even if it’s true. We need a shift in mindset to be proactive and more responsive as citizens. I think it will take time.”
Saudi Arabia has a chequered history when it comes to voting. It had its first municipal elections in 1939 and again beginning in 1954. These early efforts ceased in 1962. Following an initial burst of enthusiasm in 2005, voter participation fell, particularly after the 2009 contests were postponed until 2011.
In the September 2011 municipal elections about 1.2 million Saudi men were eligible to vote for 5,323 candidates vying for 2,112 council seats. But in Riyadh, only about 300,000 of the men bothered to register, a sharp drop from 800,000 registrants in 2005. Many Saudis cited a lack of transparency by municipal councils, access to public meetings and the perceived ineffectiveness of councils to implement policies for the decline in interest.
In a 2011 poll by the English-language newspaper Arab News, Saudis said they were dissatisfied with the performance of the Jeddah Municipal Council. The survey found that 71.6% of the 387 polled Saudis described the council’s performance as “very bad.” Only 15.2% said the council’s conduct was “good.”
And therein lies a challenge for both male and female voters: There is little confidence in local governance.
Still, there have been successes for women. In the Eastern province, 80 women are running for city council seats in ten municipalities this year.
Eman al-Nafjan, a writer and academic who is working with the Baladi Initiative to help women with online support to get out the vote, said the poor council performance should not discourage women from voting.
“Voting is very symbolic,” Nafjan said. “Yes, this is democracy at an extremely low level but we must still practice it. Democracy is coming and it’s a basic principle of exercising your right. It’s not about winning, but practicing your rights.”
She also noted that while the number of men vying for council seats may vastly outnumber female candidates, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a lock on the election.
“(Men) are ready, especially the younger generation and the older generation,” Nafjan said. “Men in their 30s and 40s have a real issue with misogyny but the younger generation, those in their 20s, are advocating for women. As for the older generation, they also support women. My grandmother had a shop in a souk and never had problems. She was considered the matriarch of the family.”