Omanis hope first local vote is stepping stone towards change

Sat Dec 22, 2012 2:13pm EST
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By Saleh Al-Shaibany

MUSCAT (Reuters) - Hoping for jobs and democratic change, voters in Oman cast ballots in their first municipal election on Saturday, a sign of modest reform in response to protests inspired by the Arab Spring.

The small Gulf oil producer, ruled since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos, sits opposite Iran on the Strait of Hormuz, the conduit for nearly a fifth of globally traded petroleum.

Its only other elections are for the Shura Council, a body that has some limited legislative powers. Increased democracy was a main demand of protesters in Omani cities during the Arab uprisings last year, along with jobs and an end to corruption.

"We feel the change is coming with this new election that will give us the opportunity to ask officials to openly explain their actions and admit their mistakes," said voter Harib Khalfan in the Seeb district of Muscat.

At the polling station in Seeb, set up in a schoolhouse, about 50 people queued to cast their ballots while others stood in the shade and discussed which way to vote.

Voting in the capital and nearby coastal town of Barka appeared quieter than during last year's election for the Shura Council. Activists from last year's protest movement welcomed the election but cautioned that it was too early to tell whether it would lead to meaningful change.

"It's good. This is what we've been protesting for, but it's too early to celebrate. Let's wait and see," said activist Ismail al-Rasbi.

Some 1,475 candidates are seeking places on 192 local councils in the country of 2.8 million people. There were no reports of protests or other incidents across the country on Saturday afternoon. Each polling station Reuters visited had a police car parked outside to prevent trouble.   Continued...