Country's first national vote to begin today

Women are banned from casting ballots.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) -- Forty years ago, in municipal polls limited to big cities, a candidate would slaughter a few sheep, throw a dinner party in a tent to announce his candidacy and, on election day, drive supporters -- some even without identification -- to write their names on his list.
It will be a different story today, when Saudis in the Riyadh region vote in the country's first nationwide elections. They will have registration cards, vote behind privacy curtains, drop ballots in boxes designed according to international standards and choose among candidates who ran Western-style campaigns, including posters, phone text messages and newspaper ads.
The first of the three-stage elections are for only half the country's municipal councils, and women have been banned from voting and running. But it will be the first time Saudis will take part in a vote that conforms to international standards, offering them an opportunity to participate in decision-making in this absolute monarchy.
"Although such a step appears small and humble, it carries many implications, for it's the first time that basic preparations for elections are held," Labor Minister Ghazi Algosaibi told a news conference Wednesday. "These elections are a pioneering experience, the success of which will determine the following steps."
The candidates
More than 1,800 candidates are contesting 127 seats in the capital and surrounding villages today, with almost 700 men running for seven seats in Riyadh. Only 149,000 out of 600,000 eligible voters have registered to vote. Two more phases will cover the rest of the country in March and April.
The 12-day campaign, a first in the kingdom, brought enthusiasm to what had until then been a lackluster process. Campaigning ended Wednesday.
Women, however, are watching from the sidelines. Election officials have said women were excluded because there wasn't time to prepare female-only polling centers and because most women do not carry ID cards. But some Saudis privately acknowledge this mostly conservative society would not have accepted women as voters or candidates.
Women's issues
Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, a cleric at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, said scholars are divided over whether women should take part in elections.
Although women's issues were almost absent from campaign platforms, many candidates were asked about women's rights during daily public gatherings. Candidate Badr al-Suaidan tried to hedge the question Tuesday evening, but when a guest was insistent, al-Suaidan answered affirmatively -- a response that may cost him votes.
Columnist Badriyah al-Bisher criticized the decision to bar women and made an analogy between their exclusion from the vote and the ban on women drivers.
"We've been dumped in the back seat again, and only a man is allowed to drive us," she said.
With more than 1,800 candidates in the Riyadh region, it was difficult to determine how many fundamentalist Muslims are running. Many candidates are wealthy businessmen and landowners who have poured millions into their campaigns in hopes of gaining influence. Even if they lose, the campaign is good self promotion.
After the elections
The powers of the councils are not clear, nor are their specific responsibilities. But analysts expect them to become a conduit for public dissatisfaction, especially among poorer Saudis, that will bridge the information gap between the government and the people.
Algosaibi, the labor minister, said others may judge the pace of reforms in the kingdom as too slow but critics "do not realize that the nature of societies itself is what should be the only criteria for the pace of change."
"What makes reform here slow is that Saudi Arabia has always been based on the principle of consensus. You have to wait for a viable consensus to reform before you go ahead."
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