Sunday, March 20, 2005

Why I Welcome Municipal Polls

Unlike a politician I can change my mind without being accused of waffling. So let me now admit this dramatic change: When a wise friend asked me, only a few weeks ago, about the municipal elections, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. Like many, I wasn’t sure what kind of authority the councils would have and what difference my vote would make in my life, and how a half-elected council could be strong and independent enough to take on the tough issues of the day and truly represent my aspirations and positions.
She told me then: There has to be a beginning — a first step — for everything. Saudi intellectuals have called for elections for a long time.
Yes, it is not as much as they hoped for. Yes, it isn’t 100 percent democratic for all members, since half are appointed. And yes, it is not for the Shoura Council, or even regional councils. But if this step went smoothly and worked well; if people chose wisely and their representatives acted as promised; and if candidates campaigned in a civilized, professional way, and accepted the results in sporting fashion, then the government would be encouraged to expand the experiment further.
Next it could be the Regional Council, and in a few years it could reach the Shoura Council. The percentage of elected officials would increase as well, my optimistic friend assured me. Women would get their vote, and people would have their say in making, implementing and auditing public policies and funds. Democracy thrives when established on a strong foundation and steady legs, she told me.
I wasn’t convinced then, but I changed my mind later. Two events moved me to the other side of the aisle. The first was reading the now-available bylaws of the council.
It includes preparing and auditing municipal budgets, deciding project priorities, suggesting new projects and deciding on sources of income.
This means council members will be able to improve the bureaucratic system. Budgets and spending procedures will be more transparent, rational and effective. Officials will be more accountable. Projects will be more appropriate and better prioritized. Most importantly, the people’s voices will be heard by the people’s choices.
The second event that changed my attitude toward elections is the success of Riyadh elections. The citizens of Riyadh chose well and wisely. They ignored the rich and powerful that thought that pouring millions into advertising campaigns, parties and speeches would be enough. On election day, those who won were the ones who knew their neighborhoods well and worked hard on charities and both social and community work before the elections were even on the horizon. All are well educated, smart and have integrity. They aren’t rich, but they have rich records of public service.
Tribal and family prestige and connections were not a factor. People chose those who would better express their hopes and aspirations, understand their concerns and problems and represent the average man. Of course, those who didn’t like the results have cried foul. They objected to the fact that most elected members are conservative Muslims and that they coordinated with one another — even though the law prohibits such coordination — and received the blessings of popular Islamic figures.
Assuming the winners did, and were the only ones who did so, what difference does it make to the final outcome? People identified with the winners, identified with their platforms, respected their qualifications, liked their election promises and trusted the candidates to fulfill them. This wouldn’t change if the elections were to be rerun — especially in the light of the wide gap between the winners and losers. All that such an attitude can achieve is to sully a great experience and give ammunition to those looking for an excuse to call the step a failure and halt a forward movement.
Now that objections have been submitted to the authorized committee, we should all await and accept their expert judgment. What couldn’t be achieved in this term can be examined and achieved in the next. And there are many lessons to learn, many improvements to make and many forward steps to take.
Women, will hopefully, be taken into account by candidates in other regions. You can’t claim to represent society if you only speak for half of it. In future elections, we hope women will not only be eligible to vote but also to run for office and/or be appointed. We also hope all members will be elected, and the process includes more councils, regional and national.
With this hope and newfound understanding, I’m now not only going to register to vote, as my wise friend advised, but I will also get involved in calling on citizens to vote, and campaign for those who best represent my views, and earned my trust.