Q&A: Saudi municipal elections

King Abdullah's announcement this week that women will be able to vote in the municipal elections in 2015 has also raised the profile of these polls The announcement that women will be able to vote in 2015 has raised the profile of this year's polls

Saudi Arabia is holding nationwide elections for its 285 municipal councils on Thursday. This is the only tier of government that is even partly elected, with half of the seats chosen by male voters and the rest appointed by the King.

The 2011 elections are the focus of intense interest at home and abroad, largely because of unprecedented public protests in Saudi Arabia this year by pro-democracy campaigners, Shia Muslims and women demanding greater civil rights in emulation of the Arab Spring elsewhere.

King Abdullah's announcement this week that women will be able to vote in municipal elections in 2015 has also raised the profile of these polls, as well as the risk of public protests during the vote.

What happened 2005?

The only nationwide polls so far in Saudi Arabia were the 2005 municipal elections. The results were surprising, in that they showed how campaigners got around the ban on political parties and electoral blocs.

They instead used internet forums and SMS text messages to promote their preferred candidates.

Liberal groups and Shia Muslims in the Eastern Province were active, but Sunni Muslim clergy and their supporters were most successful in securing victory for their conservative religious candidates.

They were helped by a low turnout - the councils wield little power - and by a system that allowed voters to choose candidates not only in their own ward but also elsewhere in the given municipality. This allowed Sunni campaigners to concentrate votes in key wards, which they used in particular to mobilise supporters against Shia candidates in the Eastern Province.

How did the authorities react?

Some Saudi political analysts thought the authorities had tolerated the unusual level of political activism by Sunni clerics because it produced councils broadly supportive of the government.

A new municipal election law was quickly drafted that banned multiple voting and granted the councils more power. Although they cannot initiate any measures, they have the right to approve decisions by appointed mayors and other local officials.

Most significantly, the government postponed the next round of municipal elections due in 2009 for "re-evaluation". Earlier this year it suddenly announced that the elections would be held in September, possibly with an eye to calming public protests.

What sort of campaigning is allowed?

Candidates are allowed to buy advertising space in local newspapers, pay for billboards and organise hustings, but "vote-buying" through lavish spending on hospitality faces a spending cap.

The expansion of social media since 2005 has seen much of the election campaign move online, with candidates using Facebook, Twitter and SMS messages openly. The authorities have tolerated this, probably because there has been no sign of overt politics, sectarian campaigning or electoral alliances.

Who can vote and stand in the elections?

The electoral law says that "all citizens" can vote. In practice, however, only adult male Saudi citizens can do so, as the government has said it either cannot organise segregated voting procedures for women, or simply that female suffrage is counter to "social customs".

About 1.2 million Saudi men have registered to vote. Many local analysts expect a higher turnout at these elections than in 2005, as does National Electoral Commission Chairman Abdel-Rahman al-Dahmash.

Only men are allowed to stand in the elections, and more than 5,000 candidates have registered.

What about women?

Although the campaign to allow women to drive has had the higher public profile abroad, women activists have also been demanding the right to vote in this year's municipal elections.

The Saudi women's pressure group Baladi (My Country), which has a substantial Facebook following, has been calling on women to try to register for the vote since April and to turn up at polling stations on election day.

Moreover, over 60 leading Saudi public figures have called on voters to boycott the elections over the ban on women voting.

King Saud University historian Hatoon al-Fassi, a prominent campaigner for human rights associated with Baladi, has threatened to organise parallel voting for "women's municipal councils", and Electoral Commission Chairman Al-Dahmash has acknowledged that there is no law to prohibit this.

There have been reports in the Gulf media of considerable public support for votes for women, especially after a local newspaper published photographs of women queuing to register to vote in the spring.

The country's wholly-appointed Consultative Council formally backed giving women the right to vote in the municipal elections earlier this year, but made the recommendation after registration for this round of voting had already closed.

King Abdullah was officially responding to the Council's advice when he approved votes for women next time.

Could there be trouble on polling day?

There can be little doubt that women activists will try to vote at polling stations. The police have treated such protests leniently so far, in line with an apparent policy to calm public anger since the summer.

Protests by Shias are possible, and would be treated more harshly if the experience of recent months is any indicator.

What impact will the elections have?

The Sunni religious bloc of candidates will try to repeat their success in mobilising voters, and other blocs - in particular liberals and Shias - will try to emulate them. An expected higher turnout could bring a more diverse set of councillors and with it pressure for change.

A perceived win for pro-government Sunni conservatives could prompt more protests, especially as the concession to women voters in 2015 has shown that the authorities can be pushed into limited change.

Pressure on the government to introduce further reforms is therefore likely to grow whatever the result. The question is whether either campaigners or the government response might turn violent.

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