RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 10 -- Saudi Arabia began its tentative experiment in democracy Thursday as thousands of men filed into schools, government offices and streetside tents to cast what for many were the first votes of their lives.
At stake were half the seats on 38 municipal councils throughout greater Riyadh, politically powerless positions responsible for the nuts and bolts of city government. But the mix of exuberance and solemnity inside many polling places suggested that the unusual act of voting was more important than the results.
A Saudi man casts ballot as others wait to vote at a school in Riyadh.
(Hasan Jamali -- AP)
Makeshift voting booths were filled throughout the day with Saudi men, who bent over small metal desks to scrutinize lengthy ballots before dropping them in plastic bins. The parade was interrupted only by periodic calls to prayer in the birthplace of Islam, prompting voters and election officials alike to bow down in the corners of polling places before returning to vote.
"We call this a democratic wedding," said Salih Enezi, 49, a language professor at King Saud University who supervised voting at the al-Arqam School for boys in north Riyadh. "Everyone is hoping we'll have more and more, and in fields that are more involved in people's lives. But now everybody is happy."
The voting, which excluded women and members of the military, marked the first time in four decades that residents of the kingdom cast ballots for political office. The elections have been described by Saudi officials and the Bush administration, which is encouraging democratic reform throughout the Middle East, as a first step in opening up the autocratic government of this oil-rich kingdom to more public participation.
Late Thursday, Saudi officials said a preliminary assessment indicated that 82 percent of registered voters in the municipalities outside Riyadh cast ballots, a figure that did not include the capital itself. Election officials planned to announce more results at a news conference Friday afternoon.
"It has been smooth," an adviser to the elections commission said. "There are no major issues here."
Saudis last voted in 1963 for regional offices in the western part of the country, although such institutions as chambers of commerce regularly elect their leaders. In the next two months, voting is scheduled in the east and west, where voter registration has surpassed the relatively low level here. About a quarter of the Riyadh area's roughly 550,000 eligible voters registered over a month-long period.
But there was no shortage of candidates, and 1,800 businessmen, teachers, Islamic scholars and others campaigned for 127 council seats across the capital region. They used the Internet, newspaper advertisements and evening seminars held in tents across the city, events usually followed by heaping platters of lamb or camel and rice. The sheer number presented many voters with a daunting challenge as they flipped through ballots as long as seven pages.
"How can you decide? Tell me," said Saleh Abdulaziz, 30, as he prepared to vote in a large tent in the central Malaz district. "How am I supposed to know who these guys are?"
Abdulaziz, an engineer with the Saudi Telecommunication Co., stood before a list posted on a wall bearing the names of 70 candidates, all running in his district. But he also had to sort through the names of hundreds of other candidates running for seats in adjacent districts, most of whom he had never heard of.
"Some I recognize because I got messages from them on my mobile phone," Abdulaziz said. "And others I've heard of through my colleagues. But I don't really have any idea, because I didn't have time before this to get to know them."
A few feet away, Ali Mohammed Khawaji also looked over the list, puzzled but with a plan. Khawaji, a computer engineer with the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, the agency overseeing the elections, said he planned to pick out a few potential candidates and then call his wife, Alila, for her endorsement.
"I always do things with her opinion -- always," said Khawaji, 33.