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FALQs: Saudi Arabia Municipal Elections – Women Participate for the First Time

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The following is a guest post by George Sadek, a senior legal research analyst at the Law Library of Congress. George has contributed a number of posts to this blog, including posts on Egypt’s new antiterrorism law, the legal processes available to imprisoned journalists in Egypt, the trial of Seif al Islam al Gaddafi, and constitutional developments in Egypt. This blog post is part of our Frequently Asked Legal Questions series.

In February 2011, I wrote a blog post about the second municipal elections to be held in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Now, nearly five years later, I am writing about the third municipal elections in the Kingdom. The elections were held on December 12, 2015, and have been the subject of media coverage around the world, particularly because women were able to participate in the elections for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia. In this post, I hope to answer some of the questions that researchers and others interested in the elections may have about the electoral laws and processes of Saudi Arabia.

1.  How often are municipal elections held?

Beams of light shine up toward the Saudi Arabian flag above a nighttime cityscape.
National day of Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Flickr user yasser zareaa, Sept. 22, 2014.) Used under Creative Commons License,

The first municipal elections were held in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2005. In 2004, after consulting with the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, King Abdullah Bin Saud decided to introduce an election system at the level of municipal councils across the Kingdom. This was a major development because there was no other national election system in the country at the time; members of the Shura Council, which is the national legislature, are appointed by the King.

The elections of 2005 were regulated by Ministerial Resolution No. 38396 of 2004, which was issued by the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs. The elections were conducted using a direct, secret ballot system. The goal of the Resolution was to ensure that the first elections held in the Kingdom were conducted in a transparent way, according to generally recognized democratic principles. Under the Resolution, elections are to be held every four years, although the gap between the first and second elections was extended by two years.

The second municipal elections were held in 2011. In both the first and second municipal elections, only men were allowed to run as candidates and to vote.

The recent December 2015 municipal elections were regulated by Royal Decree M/61 of 2014. This Decree, which was issued by King Abullah on July 19, 2014, amends Ministerial Resolution No. 38396 of 2004. The elections were the first in the history of the Kingdom in which female candidates and voters could participate.

2.  What requirements are imposed on voters and candidates by Royal Decree M/61 of 2014?

The Decree specifies voting requirements that each voter must meet in order to cast a valid vote. It provides for verification of voters’ addresses during the registration process by one of the staffers at the registration centers. Voters must register in person; mail-in or online registration is not available. Military personnel and those under the age of 18 cannot register to vote. Under the previous election regulation of 2004, the voting age was 21. The Decree also prohibits voters from voting in more than one municipality.

With respect to candidates, the Decree requires them to register as voters first. It also prohibits the following as candidates: 1) individuals running for office in more than one municipality; 2) individuals who are less than 25 years of age; 3) contractors working directly with the municipal councils; 4) individuals offering services to the municipalities; 5) individuals investing in the municipalities; 6) individuals who did not finish their high school education; 7) individuals convicted of felonies and misdemeanors related to their integrity and honesty; 8) individuals fired from their jobs due to lack of ethics; and 9) individuals who have declared bankruptcy.

3. Who is in charge of running the elections and monitoring the electoral process?

In collaboration with the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs supervises the election process. Based on Royal Decree M/61 of 2014, the Minister of Municipality and Rural Affairs issued Regulation of 1436 (2015) on municipal elections on June 15, 2015. The new regulation establishes two types of electoral commissions: 1) a general electoral commission that supervises the election at the national level, and 2) local electoral commissions that monitor the elections at the local level. It also provides for the creation of a third separate commission for registration of voters and candidates.

The Minister of Municipality and Rural Affairs is the one in charge of appointing members of the electoral commissions. All disputes or any other issues raised by the candidates will be resolved by an entity called “the Appeals and Grievances Board.” Furthermore, in the event that votes are divided evenly among two candidates, the Regulation grants the authority to the heads of the local electoral commission to conduct a lottery to determine the winner.

Royal Decree M/61, under article 24, also created the right of NGOs and non-profit organizations to monitor the transparency of the elections. Accordingly, in the third municipal elections, the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), a Saudi nongovernmental organization, was given permission to monitor the elections.

4.  What is the role and composition of municipal councils?

Royal decree M/61 of 2014 specifies the role of the municipal councils. It includes the following functions:

  • Identifying the needs of the province and proposing their inclusion in the State’s Development Plan;
  • Defining useful projects and putting them in an order of priority, and proposing their cost in the annual budget of the State;
  • Addressing costs of operations and maintenance of existing projects as well as creating new investment and development opportunities;
  • Studying urban plans for villages and towns of the municipality, including the confiscation of private properties for developments considered to be in the public interest;
  • Following up and coordinating the implementation of all allocations to the municipality from the development plan and budget;
  • Supervising the implementation of regulations related to traffic and roads, public health, land use and registration, fees and fines, and land division;
  • Monitoring the performance of local employees and the quality of services offered by offices affiliated with the municipalities; and
  • Receiving complaints from members of the public, reviewing them, and finding appropriate solutions.

According to a guide issued by the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs about the 2015 municipal elections, there are 284 municipal councils in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The current number of council members is 3,159. Two-thirds of the members across the Kingdom are elected in the municipal elections. The remaining third (1,053) of the members are appointed by the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs. The proportion of members who are elected has increased compared to the previous election in 2011, when 50% were elected and 50% appointed.

According to news reports, 6,915 candidates ran in these municipal elections for a total of 2,106 available seats.

5.  What led to women being able to participate in these elections?

The late King Abdullah bin Abulaziz, who died in early 2015, was the driving force behind women being allowed to run and vote in the municipal elections of 2015. In September 2011, in his annual speech before the Shura Council, he announced that he granted his permission to women to participate in the next municipal election that was scheduled to be held in 2015. The King’s promise to Saudi women led to the drafting of articles 17 and 18 of Decree M/61 of 2014. These two articles grant Saudi women the right to vote and run for office.

The King also appointed 30 women to the previously all-male Shura Council in January 2013. He stated at that time that at least one fifth of the 150 seats on the Council should always be held by women.

6.  How many women stood in the elections? How many registered to vote?

According to news reports, more than 900 women registered as candidates in the 2015 municipal elections. Around 131,000 women registered to vote. Election officials estimated that up to 5 million women were eligible to register. Saudi Arabia’s total population is about 28 million.

7.  Were women able to fully participate? What challenges did they face?

Despite the support offered to women by the Saudi Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs, female candidates faced various challenges during the campaign process. For example, they were prohibited from directly addressing male voters while campaigning. This is because Saudi Arabia maintains strict segregation of men and women in public places. Female voters and candidates also encountered the opposition of some conservative religious clerics. One of those clerics, Sheikh Abdelrahman al-Barrak, addressed his followers on Twitter, warning them that this election was being westernized and that their votes were not religiously permissible if they could lead to the mixing of women and men in one place.

Saudi female candidates tried to find ways to overcome the gender segregation policy that prohibits them from addressing male voters directly. Some of the female candidates were able to locate men who were willing to act as spokespersons and address male voters on their behalf. Female candidates could also address male voters through social media and video conferencing.

8.  Did female candidates gain any seats in this election?

Twenty women have won seats in the municipal councils, including a female candidate who won a seat in the municipal council of the Madrika district of Mecca. Also, Huda al-Jeraisy, the daughter of a former head of the chamber of commerce, was elected in the Kingdom’s capital, Ryadh.

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