Saudi hopefuls backed by clerics show strength

They win five of seven races in capital, deal blow to reformers

February 12, 2005|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - In a blow to reformers in Saudi Arabia, candidates backed by Islamic clerics appear to have won a key region in the country's first nationwide election.

Preliminary tallies yesterday for Riyadh, the capital, showed that at least five of the seven winning candidates in Thursday's municipal elections have close ties to Saudi Arabia's clerical establishment.

Although the results apply only to a municipal race for the capital, they had been widely anticipated here and in Washington as a rare referendum on reform efforts in one of the world's most traditional absolute monarchies.

The Islamists' victory in the political heart of the country could be a setback for reform-minded Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, who had gambled that elections could loosen hard-line clerics' grip on the government. Abdullah has clashed with more conservative members of the royal family who do not support his reforms and watered down his balloting plan by barring women from voting and setting aside half the seats to be appointed by the ruling family.

The Saudi ruling family is under pressure as it battles a homegrown insurgency that has claimed more than 100 civilian lives in bombings and clashes with security forces in the past two years.

An election observer alleged that before the vote, the winning candidates might have improperly formed a slate that received the backing of religious authorities. Such an alliance - whether the members solicited the endorsement or not - could violate the election's ban on political parties.

Observer Suleiman al-Oqaili said he saw the winners' names on a list spread through cell-phone text messages and the Internet.

"It was promoted as a list that had a religious blessing," al-Oqaili said at a news conference in Riyadh.

One of the winning campaigns said it had broken no rules.

"I don't think we got the endorsement of anybody. I don't think we've done anything wrong," said Mohammed al-Yamani, spokesman for winning candidate Abdulazis al-Omary, an Islamic history professor at King Saud University.

"In simple terms, either we believe in the ballot box or we do not believe in it. If we believe in the will of the people, then we must accept the results."

Twenty of the losing candidates plan to file an official protest over the results, said candidate Abdulrahman al-Homeidi.

Moderate candidates say they are worried that a victory by the religious establishment might undermine halting reform efforts, which include expanding women's rights, strengthening the rule of law and revamping the educational system.

"We have enough religious power in our country, and they will increase it even more. The result is not promising," said al-Homeidi, a professor of public administration at King Saud University. "I am concerned about the future. Once they get into the level of municipality, then I'm sure they will get more power and will get into the higher levels of government."

The voting was the first of three rounds. The eastern and western regions will go to the polls next month and in April.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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