Sunday 5 October 2003 (09 Sha`ban 1424)

      Omanis Vote in Their First Free Election
      S. Manoj, Special to Arab News 
      MUSCAT, 5 October 2003 - Omanis went to the polls yesterday in the first 
free elections to the country's 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 Muscat's polling 
stations. Observers noted that the turnout was bigger than in previous 

      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 

      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 Council's new term begins early next 

      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.

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