Sunday, May 01, 2005

Elections and the Golden Lists

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

What is going on? Why are losers of the first municipal elections in decades protesting? What do you think of the “golden lists” of candidates endorsed by a number of popular Islamic scholars and preachers?
I was asked those questions by some foreign friends who are closely following the developments in Saudi Arabia.
In a meeting attended by some members of Jeddah’s “Golden List” and their opponents, I listened to arguments from both parties. List members were defending the right of eleven Islamists to endorse seven candidates out of over five hundred. This is after all a lesson in democracy and endorsement of candidates is one legitimate way of playing the game, they argued. Besides, how can we have freedom of expression if people cannot express their support for one candidate or the other?
The opponents ask: How can we compete and why should we if certain candidates are already guaranteed to win? On what basis those scholars chose the lucky seven? When they say certain candidates are good Muslims, what that make the rest of us? Besides, the rules prohibit getting support from any government employee. Some of the endorsers work for the government. Not only they publicly endorsed the candidates, but they also participated in their campaign programs and activities with sermons and lectures. It is also against the rules for candidates to coordinate with each other.
Those complaints were filed with the concerned authorities. But there were no evidence to support the allegations of material support from government employees and coordination among list members. After consultation with experts and Saudi Telecom, it was not possible to establish that candidates and endorsers were responsible for the broadcast of the Golden List. Members of conservative websites published the lists. Others distributed them by e-mail and SMS messages. It wasn’t against the rules for scholars to participate in campaign programs or endorse candidates.
When it was my turn, I explained that endorsement is a citizen’s right in a democracy. In the States, for example, a group of distinguished economists may support the president in his re-election campaign. Another group of corporate executives or religious leaders might support his opponent. Even newspapers could endorse one party or another.
The electorate needs this kind of advice to help them choose from among hundreds of candidates. Without that, they might lose interest or choose the more familiar names. Those with the deeper pockets are usually the winners in this case. Ads and other campaign activities cost more than 100 million riyals in Jeddah alone.
The Islamists took the initiative and produced a list. The question is why the others didn’t. I expected groups like former mayors, engineers, university professors in related fields and other opinion leaders to come up with a list each. The public, then, will find it much easier to choose among endorsed lists.
What were missing in the Golden List are the bases for the recommendations. In the Golden List case the only reason given was the endorsed were “good Muslims” and competent individuals. Those are vague terms that can be said of many.
Why the public would comply with a set list without much questioning is another story. This is the story of a generation taught not to argue with authority whether in homes, schools, or mosques. Children blindly obey parents; students study only schoolbooks, and believers take their imams’ teachings as final. That is why we are very much behind in scientific research. You need to have a free mind and spirit to be creative and adventurer. Faithfully following the script will help us maintain the status quo, but will never help us move ahead.
This slavish, lazy, dependent mentality and attitude explain why most people didn’t bother to do proper investigation of candidates. On Election Day they just turned on their mobiles, copied the names sent to them, and declared their conscience clear.
That being said, we must admit that the chosen candidates are some of the most capable. They are highly educated. All are university graduates. Three hold Ph.D. Four are Western-educated. Three are educators. Four work for the public sector and three for the private. Most have good records in community service. They worked hard and spent wise. Their campaigns were run professionally and efficiently. They spoke the common man’s language, and addressed real concerns and vital issues. Their credibility was high even before the endorsement by religious scholars. They deserve to win.
These are good lessons to learn for future elections. Another is that liberalism doesn’t sell in Saudi Arabia. Even in Jeddah, the most liberal town in the country, the electorate listened to their sheikhs and trusted conservatives. Western-minded Saudi liberals should know that Islam is in the DNA of every Saudi, and that’s a fact of life.

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