Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

December 17, 2015

Saudi women elected in historic vote

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

18 December 2015

JEDDAH – At least 20 female candi­dates captured munici­pal council seats in Sau­di Arabia in stunning victories despite restric­tive campaign rules and criticism from the religious establishment.

The victories accounted for a fraction of the 2,100 council seats on 284 councils nationwide and were seen by Western critics of the kingdom as modest gains at best. But the victories mark a significant repudiation of religious conserva­tives, including the popular cleric Abdul Aziz al-Fawzan, who argued that only men should vote and that having elections imported Western values.

“The religious conservatives are fully aware that the days of hav­ing their unlimited say in sustain­ing the obscurantist nature of their polity are numbered,” said Ehsan M. Ahrari, adjunct research profes­sor at the Strategic Studies Insti­tute, Army War College in Penn­sylvania, and who has researched Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East. “But they, under no circumstances, will not go down without a fight.”

Women candidates faced huge disadvantages. Only 130,637 fe­males registered to vote in contrast to 1.35 million men. Abdullatif al-Shaikh, minister of Rural and Mu­nicipal Affairs, said that 979 wom­en ran among 6,917 candidates. In all, 702,542 voters cast ballots, rep­resenting an overall 47.4% voter turnout, according to Shaikh.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that many female winners won seats in traditionally conservative rural areas such as Tabuk in the remote north-west, where 80% of the registered female voters cast ballots and 44% of the registered men voted. Indeed, Saudi results reflected elections worldwide in which large voter turnouts, spurred by well-organised cam­paigns, could sweep in candidates often not favoured to win.

Among the newly elected coun­cil members were Salma Al-Oteibi in Madrakah; Hinuwf Al-Hazmi of Al-Jouf and Mona el-Emery and Fadhila al-Attawy, both of Tabuk. In Jeddah, where 80% of the reg­istered women voters cast ballots, Rasha Hefzi and Lama al-Suleiman won council seats in separate dis­tricts. Elected members will com­prise two-thirds of all councils.

Saudi journalist Maha Alqeel said the keys to the rural victo­ries were the candidates’ well-run campaigns and knowledge of their communities.

“The wins have been in small towns and big cities,” Alqeel said. “Despite the media problems of getting out the vote, they are known in their local communi­ties. Voters probably know them or know of them. In the end the vot­ers looked at the person.”

Preliminary returns indicated that Hefzi claimed 131 votes in a field of eight women and ten men in the second district in Jeddah. She said her experience and name recognition swayed voters.

“Voters from previous elections know their communities and usu­ally vote in groups and vote for people they know,” Hefzi said. “The most difficult part was enter­ing those communities and pro­moting our programme and cre­dentials and who we are.”

Municipal council campaigns are highly regulated, making efforts to spread candidates’ messages diffi­cult. A tent is set up in a commu­nity and candidates have ten days to host events. Candidates also use street advertising, door-to-door canvassing, call centres and mar­keting techniques to get out the vote.

Rima al-Mukhtar, a social media and public relations specialist in Jeddah, said Hefzi and Suleiman have strong reputations in the community.

“Rasha is a big volunteer and she is a good reflection of the com­munity she represents and Lama is very experienced and has worked in the Jeddah Chamber of Com­merce. She will represent entre­preneurs,” Mukhtar said.

Election observers, both in the West and in Saudi Arabia, were sceptical that women would make much of a showing in the election. But Saudi women have come a long way in gaining male allies to run for public office since a 2005 poll by the Riyadh-based Asbar Centre for Studies, Research and Commu­nications reported that 59% of the surveyed Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5% said they didn’t want them on municipal councils.

But a decade has made a differ­ence. Hefzi said her strongest sup­porters were men. “Most of my votes were from men,” she said.

Municipal councils possess lit­tle power and have no control over funds. Councils serve in an adviso­ry role to municipalities, which are responsible for garbage collection and park and road maintenance among similar tasks involving in­frastructure.

The involvement of local mu­nicipal councils in keeping neigh­bourhoods maintained vary greatly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

Candidates argued that if wom­en fit anywhere in the decision-making process in Saudi Arabia it’s at the municipal level in their own neighbourhoods where their children play and they shop for the family.

Hefzi said she sees her role as a council member to provide bet­ter communication between the council and their constituents. “We want to create an advocacy with a new structure on the coun­cil to hopefully have better plans,” she said. “I hope to have a very key role in developing better service and contact with the community. As an advisory council we should represent the voice of the public.”

1 Comment

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