Omanis Vote in Their First Free Election
S. Manoj, Special to Arab News

MUSCAT, 5 October 2003 ó Omanis went to the polls yesterday in the first free elections to the countryís Shoura Council.

Some 506 candidates, including 15 women, were running for seats in the 83-member council, which has no formal powers but is consulted on new laws and economic policies. Sultan Qaboos announced universal suffrage late last year, joining other regional states that are introducing democratic reforms. Hundreds of voters, including women, formed long queues in the capital Muscatís polling stations. Observers noted that the turnout was bigger than in previous elections.

There are an estimated 800,000 eligible voters in the sultanate of 1.96 million. Voting continued late into the evening at 95 polling stations in 59 provinces.

Despite a six-month-long awareness campaign, during which the government used text messages with the help of Omantel, put up banners at vantage points, conducted seminars and workshops among other innovative ideas to get the population to register, only 262,000 people registered. Of those, 100,000 were women. Voters chose their candidates on the basis of friendship, kinship or on the advice of elders.

In previous elections in this small Gulf country, only 25 percent of the population were eligible to vote. In 2000, community and tribal leaders selected one out of four citizens, usually of prominent status, to vote. The 15 women candidates in the fray this time, include a journalist from the official Arabic newspaper Oman and a top businesswoman.

Votes are to be tallied by computers for the first time and preliminary results were expected today. The Shoura Councilís new term begins early next year.

Oman has been experimenting with elections for the past eight years, first introducing limited participation and then women voters and candidates.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Kuwait has had an elected Parliament since 1963, but women are barred from voting and running for office. Bahrain reintroduced an elected Parliament last year, the first since 1975. Qatar is planning elections next year for its first Parliament; both men and women will be eligible to vote.