Saudi men are to vote Thursday in municipal elections, the last all-male affair in the Muslim kingdom after a royal decree this week giving women the right to cast ballots in four years.
Some 5,324 candidates will compete for 816 seats in the elections ̶ only the second in Saudi Arabia's history ̶ to fill half the seats in the country's 285 councils. The other half are appointed by the government.
The first elections in the Gulf kingdom, which has a population of around 27.5 million, including around 19 million Saudis, were held in 2005, but the government extended the existing council's term for two years.
Around 1.2 million male voters have registered to take part.
The election is just four days after Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarch Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run in the next municipal elections in four years, a historic first for the ultra-conservative country.
Women’s rights activists had long fought for the right to vote in the kingdom, which applies a strict version of Sunni Islam and bars women from driving or travelling without the consent of a male guardian.
And despite their frustration at having to wait until 2015 to exercise the right, female activists were rejoiced by the decision by the 86-year-old king, who was spared Arab spring protests that toppled autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
“We are heading towards a new era that will see women obtain their rights,” said Maha Futaihi, spouse of the kingdom’s Labor Minister Adel Faqih, who is also a community activist.
Candidate Othman al-Othman also welcomed the king’s decision.
“It is an honor for us to compete with our sisters and I think they are more serious and interactive than men,” he said.
In addition to participating in the only public polls in the country, King Abdullah announced Sunday that he has decided to admit women to the Shura Council, an all-appointed, consultative body.
Saudi Arabia’s does not have an elected parliament.
Abdullah’s move was hailed by the United States and Britain, which both called it a significant “step forward” for the Saudi people.
However, Saudi steps towards gender equality were seen by some as insufficient.
Hussein Sharif head of the human rights association in the western city of Mecca said: “Women still have a long way to go” to gain their rights in the kingdom.
“The road for women to gain their rights is still too long. She is still marginalized... in terms of her rights and duties,” said Fahad Al-Harithi, head of Asbar Center for Studies, Research and Communications.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch also welcomed the decision but said it came too late.
“King Abdullah’s promise that women will finally be allowed to vote is a welcome move away from the discrimination and exclusion that Saudi women have suffered for so long,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.
“Sadly, King Abdullah’s promise of reform in 2015 doesn’t come soon enough for women to vote in upcoming municipal elections,” said Whitson.
Amnesty International, which cautiously welcomed the decision, said the kingdom was moving much too slowly on women's rights.
“It is a welcome, albeit limited, step along the long road towards gender equality in Saudi Arabia,” said Philip Luther, the global rights watchdog's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“It is, however, much overdue and does not go nearly far enough.”
“While moving in the right direction, Saudi Arabia is moving far too slowly. Ultimately, it is no great achievement to be one of the last countries in the world to grant women the vote,” Luther said.
More than 60 intellectuals and activists had called in May for a boycott of the September ballot because “municipal councils lack the authority to effectively carry out their role” and “half of their members are appointed,” as well as because they exclude women.