GENERAL >> General Comments >> Saudi Arabia's 1st democratic elections

Message started by Watchman on Oct 13th, 2003 at 11:40pm

Title: Saudi Arabia's 1st democratic elections
Post by Watchman on Oct 13th, 2003 at 11:40pm

IN A move that will send shockwaves through the Middle East, Saudi Arabia announced yesterday it will hold democratic elections for municipal councils - the first time its citizens have been given the right to vote.

The move follows an intensive campaign by reformists, intellectuals and academics for Prince Abdullah to allow wider political participation, elections and freedom of expression in the conservative kingdom.

"The council of ministers decided to widen participation of citizens in running local affairs, through elections [for] municipal councils. Half the members of each council [are to be] voted in," the state news agency SPA said. It did not give further details but seemed to imply that the other members would be appointed by the government.

"[This decision implements] King Fahd’s speech about widening popular participation," SPA quoted a cabinet statement as saying.

The king pledged in a speech in May to expand reforms following suicide bombings on Western compounds in Riyadh. He said the government would "expand public participation and open up wider horizons for women’s employment".

The kingdom, under the dynastic rule of the House of Saud since its foundation some seven decades ago, has an appointed advisory council but has never had elections for public office at any level. Since the 11 September, 2001 attacks on the United States - in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis - Riyadh has come under intense pressure by key ally Washington to implement social and political reform.

Analysts say this could curb rising militancy in the birthplace of Islam which is also the world’s largest oil exporter.

Political analyst Dawoud al-Sheryan praised the move, pointing out that "one year ago, just writing about elections was considered an offence".

He said the elections should be free and fair, adding a vote should also be held for the advisory council.

In another major victory for political reformers in the region, Kuwait’s cabinet has approved allowing women to stand for office and vote in municipal council elections, a move observers hail as a first step towards granting women greater political rights.

Kuwaiti newspapers said the bill was discussed on Sunday, but it still needs approval from the all-male Gulf Arab state’s powerful parliament, which in the past has blocked government proposals to grant women suffrage.

"I expect the draft law to be sent to parliament in the coming week," Islamic lawmaker Walid Tabtabai said.

While Kuwait’s 1962 constitution gives men and women equal rights, under current election law only men aged 21 or over can vote.

Women have been fighting for suffrage for decades, only to be blocked by Islamic and conservative male politicians.

Kuwait’s deputy prime minister, Mohammad Sharar, said in remarks published by local newspapers yesterday the government proposal was part of an amended draft law for the 16-member municipal council - a body which has no powers to legislate and six of whose members are government-appointed.

"The draft grants women the right to run, vote and be appointed as members of the municipal council," added Mr Sharar, minister of state for cabinet and parliament affairs.

The oil-rich state, which sits on one tenth of the world’s petrol reserves, has been seen as a pioneer in constitutional democracy with the first elected law-making parliament in the Gulf Arab region.

"This draft is a step forward and is in line with an emiri wish to give women the right to vote and run for the national assembly," Kuwait university professor Saad bin Tiflah, a former information minister, said.

"Hopefully this will be a step to active women’s political and constitutional rights."

Before it can become law, the municipal council draft has also to be endorsed by the country’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

In I999, the emir issued a decree granting women the vote in parliamentary elections but it was narrowly blocked by an alliance of Islamic and conservative MPs.

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