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Riyadh Polls Close for First Municipal Elections

The polls have closed in the first-ever municipal elections held in Saudi Arabia, where the government says it is hoping to begin a cautious process of democratic reform.

Of the 600,000 eligible male voters in and around the capital, Riyadh, only about 150,000 registered to cast their ballots.

Women were excluded from the election process. The government said it was because it did not have time to set up separate polling stations for them.

But while not everyone was allowed to participate, many of the Saudi men who cast ballots said that democratic reform has officially begun in the absolute monarchy, where open elections were held for the first time in the history of the country.

But the senior correspondent for the Arab Times in Saudi Arabia, Roger Harrison, says while he agrees that the elections are historic, he cautions that significant democratic reform in the kingdom may be decades away.

"It is going to take a long time to develop into a political party or a political debate, if it ever happens," he said. "The traditions of the kingdom go back 1,500 years to the prophet Mohammed. And, although they [Saudis] have taken on Western culture, to the extent of technology and the machinery and the apparatus, there is still a culture lag. It is going to be a long time before the mindset, the education, the traditions and the culture of the country changes to accept Western democracy as we know it."

The polling in Riyadh marked the first stage of a three-step process in nationwide voting. Next month Saudis living in the eastern and southern provinces will cast ballots. In April, residents will go to the polls in the northern and western areas of the kingdom.

Half the members of the 178 councils will be elected by voters. The other half will be appointed by the government.

For that reason, the head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, Sami Baroudi, says low voter turnout may be an indication that many Saudis do not see the elections as holding much political promise.

"People are not taking these elections seriously," he said. "Probably, they think that the municipal council is going to not have that much influence. So, it reflects that these elections are not really taken that seriously. And, again, not the whole council is elected. Half of it is elected. The other half is appointed by the government. So, it is not really a democratic way of choosing a municipal council. But, it is a start."

But it appears the political candidates are taking the elections seriously. About 1,800 Saudi men are seeking seats on municipal councils, with some reportedly spending millions of dollars campaigning.

The municipal elections were introduced in the kingdom by Crown Prince Abdullah, who has faced growing discontent among political activists in Saudi Arabia, and calls for democratic reform from the West.

The government has said it may hold provincial elections within the next four years. If so, numerous government officials have said they will recommend that women be allowed to vote.