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SLUG: 2-322977 Saudi Elections (L)







HEADLINE: Voters Go to the Polls in Saudi Arabia

INTRO: Voters in Saudi Arabia flocked to the polls in the continuation of a three-stage voting process to elect local council members. Voting took place in the eastern and southern provinces of the country, as the kingdom begins a cautious process of reform. VOA's Greg LaMotte has the details from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

TEXT: The voting marks the second stage of nationwide elections being held to select local municipal council members.

Last month, voters in Riyadh went to the polls. Next month, Saudi citizens will vote in the western and northern regions of the country.

Half of 178 municipal council seats are being contested. The other half will be appointed by the government. But the power of the councils is expected to be limited.

Only men are being allowed to take part in the elections. Saudi officials said there was not enough time to establish separate polling places for women. They said they hope women will be allowed to take part in elections scheduled to be held in four years.

According to the government, voter registration in some eastern cities reached over 45-percent, much higher than in the capital Riyadh where only 30-percent of the registered voters went to the polls.

Large numbers of Shiite Muslims live in eastern Saudi Arabia where riots occurred following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

Since then, many Shiites have complained of discrimination by the government which is controlled by Sunni Muslims. Shiites, who make up about 10-percent of Saudi Arabia's population of 17-million, complain they are not allowed to worship freely, study their own religion, and face job discrimination.

Shiite leaders in the country urged voters to go to the polls. And, about 200-thousand Saudi citizens registered to vote in the Eastern Province.

Many voters said they were participating in the elections in hopes that their voices would finally be heard.

The ruling Saudi royal family has been under increasing pressure to implement reforms. The government says the municipal elections will test the ability of the kingdom to hold open elections. In four years, regional elections are scheduled to be held. (SIGNED)


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