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Low turnout in Saudi Arabia's first poll open to women
December 13, 2015, 9:03 am
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Election workers in Saudi Arabia were counting votes after the country's first ever election open to both female voters and candidates, in a tentative step towards easing restrictions on women.

Saturday's municipal poll, which was hailed by many as historic, saw a turnout of about 25 percent, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Riyadh Saad al-Saadi reported. The fact that this was only the third time that Saudi citizens voted in an election meant that there was still little experience with the electoral process, al-Saadi said. The first local election was in 2005, and the second in 2011. Women were excluded in both.

Women are banned from driving and must cover themselves in public in the conservative kingdom, which was the world's last country to give its women the right to vote.

The official results in the latest election were expected to be announced on Monday.

More than 900 women ran for seats. They were up against nearly 6,000 men competing for places on 284 councils whose powers are restricted to local affairs including responsibility for streets, public gardens and rubbish collection.

"I am happy for having voted for the first time in my life," a woman, who declined to give her name, told the DPA news agency after leaving a polling station in the capital Riyadh.

Another female voter, Najla Harir, said: "I exercised my electoral right. We are optimistic about a bright future for women in our homeland."

Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi womens' rights activist and writer, said in a tweet: "This is a new day. The day of the Saudi woman".

Fahda Al-Rwali, a female voter, explained why the election was significant for her.

"As a woman, I need some services, some needs in my neighbourhood, like nurseries. I need social centers for youth and retirement, like this. So maybe the woman can concentrate more than the man on those needs."

Al Jazeera's Jamal Elshayyal, reporting from Riyadh after the polls closed, described the elections as "momentous".

"People here are hoping this is a significant step on the paths towards having a more inclusive society, not only for women but also for youth because the voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18," he said.

Landmark elections

A strict separation of the sexes in public facilities meant that female candidates could not directly meet the majority of voters - men - during their campaigns.

Women also said voter registration was hindered by bureaucratic obstacles, a lack of awareness of the process and its significance, and the fact that women could not drive themselves to sign up.

As a result, less than one in 10 voters are women and few, if any, female candidates are expected to win. But one-third of council seats are appointed by the municipal affairs ministry, leaving women optimistic that they will at least be assigned some of them.

Source: Al Jazeera And Agencies

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