JEDDAH, 9 March 2005 — Some say it’s the government’s fault; some say it’s television’s. Whoever is at fault, Saudi men are contending that they weren’t given enough information about the municipal elections. Of course there are some who say it’s their own fault.
Voters and would-be voters who decided not to register complain that as the registration deadline draws near, they need more information to make an intelligent decision. Many of the would-bes say that’s the reason they won’t be — voting, that is.
“I didn’t have time to register, but I will very soon,” said Rami, a 24-year-old credit analyst. “Not all of my friends are as enthusiastic about these elections. Until recently some of them thought that it was only in Riyadh.”
Rami said his colleagues’ misconceptions were due to a lack of awareness.
“There hasn’t been enough media awareness, telling the people about the importance of voting,” said Tarek Al-Samaan, owner of construction and interior design company. “Another issue is that candidates should start campaigning and voters should know all about the candidates before registering for voting. If I am voting people should know to whom they are voting for, even before they register. The campaigns should start before they register so the voter be aware of the candidates, especially since this is the first time.”
He’s one of the would-bes who won’t be — voting, that is.
“I haven’t been informed about the candidates, and the newspapers didn’t give me background about the candidates. Therefore, I am not interested in registering. How would I know if I want to vote, if I am not aware of whom I am voting for?”
He also said there should be candidates’ background and history available to the voters, even before the registration so people would be more aware.
One young man thought he would have enough information to vote — if he was voting in the Iraq election.
“I know more about the Iraqi elections than I know about the municipal one in my own country,” said Faisal, a 21-year-old university student. “Why isn’t there more coverage and promotion of it on TV?”
He said as a first-time event, it needed more coverage.
“I think that the media didn’t inform the public about it as they should have. They dealt with it as if it was a regular annual event. So many people, and I am one of them, don’t even know the role of someone who’s elected.”
Some of this is a little grinding to women sitting on the sidelines.
“My father and brother registered to prove that they’re serious about their right to vote,” said Hala Omar, a financial analyst who is very disappointed about not getting to vote herself. “But they’re not going to vote because they think candidates in municipal councils will be powerless.”
Despite a rather dim view of the election, she still considers it progress.
“Of course, this is a good first step — but not enough,” she said, noting these were also the views of the male voters in her family. “The municipality has no authority. They are only representatives who deliver individual complaints to those in power.”
Hala suspects that what happened in the Eastern Province, where 40,000 registered but only 20 percent actually cast ballots, will happen here in Jeddah.
“People are interested in their right to vote, but they are not keen on whom they are voting for,” she said.
If you don’t know the issues involved, you can always vote using name-recognition, like some people in the Eastern Province did.
“I only registered out of curiosity,” said Abdullah, a middle-aged Saudi from the Eastern Province. “I only voted because I went along with my cousins and other family members. Naturally, we voted for guys from our tribe.”
If you ask staff members at the election centers for their take on the lack of election information, they say: “Several seminars have been held before or around the beginning of registration time… And there have been a lot of pamphlets distributed discussing the procedures of registration including the dates and times of registration.”
And then there are those who think that maybe the would-be voters might possibly consider that perhaps they themselves might be a little more … proactive.
“If you care about something, then you can ask,” said Muhammad Al-Ghamdi. “The problem is that people don’t ask about things they don’t know anything about. The streets are full of signs directing you to election centers.”
Is it possible to have voter apathy before you even get a chance to vote?
“It’s not about pamphlets, or election center directions,” said Abu Fahd, a senior citizen whose sons do not share his enthusiasm about the elections. “We have five potential voters in the house, but only I’ve gone to register and intend to vote. As I said it’s not about the technicalities of the elections but about the significance of municipal elections. When I bring up the topic of elections with my sons, I get ‘What are they?’ and ‘So what?’”
Ghada Aboud, Arab News