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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Saudi Arabia, voters went to the polls for only the third time in the kingdom's history. Only men could vote in the election, filling half of the seats on some 300 municipal councils. The other half are appointed by the government.

Even before the polls closed, Saudi officials declared the election a success. But turnout appeared low at many voting stations, including in the capital, Riyadh.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is there. She sent this report.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The clear ballot boxes displayed in the middle of this pristine polling center were not even a quarter full as closing time approached.

ALI ALEQUEILY: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: The center's supervisor, Ali Alequeily says only 80 of the 1,800 voters registered here had cast ballots.

Did you vote today?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Me?

SARHADDI NELSON: Yeah.

MAN: Yes, yes this one, this one.

SARHADDI NELSON: The supervisor points to a folded ballot near the top of the heap.

Another voter was Dr. Mossad. The American-trained surgeon marveled at how quickly he was able to cast his vote. But he, like the polling supervisor, was surprised by the low turnout. Mossad believes one reason voters stayed away is because they were disillusioned with the previous councilman, who advised local government officials on municipal services and development.

MOSSAD: There was not much of improvement, I would say, or even communication because if you try to call him, you cannot find him. But I think this time they are trying to solve it. And I hope they will solve it in the right way.

SARHADDI NELSON: Hamad Saad al-Omar, who is a spokesman for the Saudi Election Committee, says that's exactly what the government is doing. He explains voting is still a new concept here, and that the councils are a work in progress.

HAMAD SAAD AL: We are always aiming for better. Every time we are aiming better and we are learning from our mistakes. The first round, people didn't know the roles of a municipal council.

SARHADDI NELSON: Omar says Saudis have to be realistic about how much they can expect from the people they elect. He adds that measures giving the councils more power are in the works.

That wasn't enough to satisfy critics like Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani. He heads the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in Riyadh, which called for a nationwide boycott of the polls. Qahtani says Saudis want a real say in how the affairs of their country are run.

MOHAMMAD FAHAD AL: By the end of the day, you are electing individuals with no mandate and it's just municipal councils. We are ready to elect people in the parliament. And I think the people are waiting for that announcement to come out of the king's speech on the 25th of September. That did not happen.

SARHADDI NELSON: But candidates like Yahya Zahrani criticized the boycott.

YAHYA ZAHRANI: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: He calls it hypocritical to demand a kingdom become a democracy and then not cast ballots when given the chance.

Meanwhile, Saudi women interviewed by NPR say they would have only been too happy to vote today. They were not allowed to because of a government ban. Officials claim they didn't have enough time to set up separate polling stations for women, who because of religious and societal norms, are strictly segregated from men in public places.

Twenty-one-year-old Ruba, a college student who asked that only her first name be used to protect her family, was among dozens of Saudi women who had protested over being excluded. They went to registration centers across the country last spring in a failed effort to sign up for the voting.

RUBA: Of course it's disappointing because we demanded this five months ago, and so it was enough time to prepare whatever preparations they had to do.

SARHADDI NELSON: But Ruba says that after King Abdullah announced on Sunday that women would be allowed to take part in future polls, she opted not to protest today.

Other women said they feared a backlash from Saudi authorities, especially after a woman in the coastal city of Jeddah was sentenced Tuesday to 10 lashes for flouting the kingdom's ban on women drivers.

Late last night, the sentence was apparently canceled. The woman's attorney, Adnan al-Saleh, says the king's nephew called his client to tell her the news. Saleh adds they are still waiting for an official announcement.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Riyadh.

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