Municipal Elections 2015

Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, Cofounder of Baladi Initiative

Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, Cofounder of Baladi Initiative

Thursday was the last day for candidacy registration in Saudi Arabia. Don’t get too excited! The elections are only for municipal council seats. But it’s still a start. This is the third round of municipal elections in history and

Dr. Aisha Al Mana, Dean of Mohammed AlMana College for Health Sciences and Dr. Hanan Al-Sheikh, pediatrician

Dr. Aisha Al Mana, Dean of Mohammed AlMana College for Health Sciences and Dr. Hanan Al-Sheikh, pediatrician

the first to allow women to vote and run. The inclusion of women is not the only progress. This round, the municipal election winners will be a bit more than the nominal seats they were in the past and will have a little more say in the budget and performance of the municipalities. For example, in the past the head of the municipality is also a voting member of the council. It doesn’t matter which way he votes or even if he abstains because the ultimate decision is made by his office once the issue leaves the council. However, this time around, the heads of municipalities are no longer council members and only a non-voting coordinator from the head’s office is allowed to attend. Other changes include lowering the age requirement to eighteen and raising the educational requirement of candidates from literate to a high school diploma. Also the number of elected versus appointed council members has changed. Instead of half elected and half appointed, now it will be two-thirds elected and one-third appointed.

Many have expressed that participation in these elections is futile. They point out that previously elected officials have not had any real impact. Others claim that many of those that were elected, were voted in for reasons other than merit such as tribal and religious affiliations.

Naseema Al Sada and daughter, activist

Naseema Al Sada and daughter, activist

This has also been evident in the current election with Shiekh Al-Mutlaq, member of the Saudi Highest Islamic Council, telling people that they should vote for their relatives regardless of merit unless those relatives release them from the obligation. However, others are more farsighted including the Municipal Affairs elections spokesperson, Mr. Jadeeh Al Qahtani, who told Al-Riyadh newspaper that the experience gained from the elections will enable the country to conduct any type of elections. And he’s right. After this round, the country will have 35 thousand Saudi men and women across the country who are trained to conduct elections. A million and twenty thousand men are already registered voters from the previous two elections. In this third round, there were over half a million new registrations. Overall, there are 1,750,149 registered voters, with women making up 22% of the total. Nominations for the seats ended yesterday with 16% going to women nominees. Some areas have released their numbers:

Area Women Men Total
Riyadh 236 1051 1287
Eastern Region 65 451 516
Qaseem 78 533 611
Madina 129 528 657
Total 508 2563 3071

municipal elections nominees

The names of those whose nominations are approved and finalized will not be released until November 29th. Afterwards the candidates have to be careful about their campaigns. According to the bylaws, their campaign spokesperson has to be approved by the Ministry. The candidates have to also be careful that their campaign program does not contain anything “seditious.” In 2005, Salman Al Sulayman candidacy was disqualified because his campaign program included his support for lifting the ban on women driving. Both men and women candidates are not even allowed to include their personal photo in their campaign programs.

voting and driving cartoon

Hind Al Zahid, Director of Eastern Region Businesswomen Center

Hind Al Zahid, Director of Eastern Region Businesswomen Center

The small number of women voters and nominees is partly due to difficulties in registering including the fact that they will be arrested if they drive their own cars. Some of these difficulties were eloquently explained in an article by Maha Akeel. Other difficulties include the prohibition on civil societies and political assembly. Civil societies are illegal and Saudis who create them face legal consequences. For example, both Waleed Abu Alkhair and Dr. Mohammed Al Qahtani are currently serving long prison sentences for starting nongovernmental organizations that promote and advocate human rights. Women participation in the municipal elections had their own government independent advocates; Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi and Fowziya Al Hani started the Baladi Initiative to advocate for women participation in the municipal elections in 2010. A year later, King Abdullah decreed that women will take part in elections. The Baladi Initiative since then has worked on raising awareness about the importance of women participation through lectures, workshops, and media appearances. ْ

Dr. Thoraya Al Obaid, Shoura Councilwoman

Dr. Thoraya Al Obaid, Shoura Councilwoman

Unfortunately once the elections were coming up, these efforts were abruptly stopped by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. The Baladi Initiative had started workshops for women who planned to run and for potential women campaign managers. The workshops were free, open to all and planned for all the major cities. As soon as the first one began in Riyadh, the Ministry issued a statement that anything pertaining to the elections has to be either run or licensed by the government. And since the Baladi Initiative is non-governmental then all of their lectures and activities became now illegal. Fortunately this did not discourage these bold women. Since they could not do anything on the ground, they took their movement online. They do interviews on TV to encourage participation and used social media to get the word out.

Sahar Nasief, author and activist, and her mother

Sahar Nasief, author and activist, and her mother

Many influential women also had their photos at registration taken and posted to encourage other women to do the same. Some of these leading women’s registration photos are included in this post. If you click on a photo, it will take you to either their Twitter profile or an online bio.

There weren’t that many objections to women participation. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Barrack issued a fatwa that women’s participation is prohibited. However this is the same sheikh who issued an earlier fatwa claiming that Muslims not adhering to and believing in gender segregation are apostates who should be killed. So far, no one has been executed. He also called soccer the “mother of all sins” and a “Jewish conspiracy against Muslim.” Yet soccer remains the country’s national and by far most popular sport. Others from the religious establishment took a more politically savvy approach. Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Fowzan encourages good Muslim women to run for seats in case a female quota is implemented. This is so “deviant” and “westernized” women do not get any seats. However, if there is no quota then Sheikh Al Fowzan states all devout Muslim men and women should vote for men. Thus no woman gets a council seat. Three videos came out and were widely shared on social media and Whatsapp calling on all “morally vigilant” men to register for the elections to ensure that no women are voted into the councils. The most telling part about these videos is how men and women are represented graphically. The men are portrayed singularly and hold their heads high looking straight ahead while the women are covered, in groups, in profile and with their heads bowed down.

Screenshot of how women and men are portrayed in videos against women participation

Screenshot of how women and men are portrayed in videos against women participation

So far there has been little indication that people are acting upon the religious establishment’s advice. There were a few minor reports of vandalism at locations for women registrations but nothing serious.

Considering that this is the first time for women to take part and how new Saudis are to the whole democratic process, it’s so far been an auspicious start for the future of political participation in Saudi Arabia.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Municipal Elections 2015

  1. Kashif

    ماشاءالله AND Accept congratulations

  2. I love reading your blog as it feels authentic and balanced. I applaud all the women and men working to enable more female participation both as voters and elected council members. I look forward to updates and a big shukran for your posts.

  3. Janet Breslin-Smith

    wonderful post, thank you! >

  4. Philip Bottern

    Great update, good that council getting better. next thing will be assuring that municipal council to havea real say on allocations of investments and municipal development. This is almodt entirely done by line ministries today.

  5. Blue Abaya

    Great post, I was actually waiting for a report from you because I know it’s going to be a balanced and insightful one.

    Thank you 👍🏻

  6. A start it is, but ought to be utilized by all Saudi women and men so the system and its advocates (in and outside of the country) won’t use lack of participation as evidence of not only Saudi women’s and men’ apathy, but to tell the world that Saudis are content with things the way they are, and some are.
    For more analysis of the elections, please visit: http://www.cdhr.info.

  7. Thank you for the overview and the insights. I agree that holding elections and exercising the right to run for office and to vote in this instance is important not only for these elections but for building future ones.

  8. It is a start. political and social reality will change step by step. In Germany, til the end of the 60th years last century, women, who wanted to work, had to ask their husbands for their permission. Good luck and much courage and endurance on your way. Charlotte

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