/ 17 May 2009

Kuwaiti women win Parliament seats for first time

Women won four seats in Kuwait’s Parliament in Saturday’s election, the first to do so in the Gulf Arab state’s history in what will be a blow to the Islamists who have long dominated the assembly. Sixteen women were among 210 candidates for the 50-seat assembly, whose new composition was announced on Sunday.

Kuwaiti women were first given the right to vote and run for office in 2005, but failed to win any seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, held in this conservative Muslim country where politics is still widely seen as a man’s domain.

About 384 790 Kuwaitis, over half of them women, were eligible to vote but turnout was low with voters worried that the poll would do little to end a long-running standoff between Parliament and government that has delayed economic reforms.

Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, called the election after dissolving Parliament two months ago to end the crisis and push through a $5-billion economic stimulus package.

The official KUNA news agency said liberal candidates Aseel Awadhi and Rola Dashti came second and seventh in the third constituency, giving them both seats in the house.

Former health minister Massouma al-Mubarak, who became the first Kuwaiti woman minister in 2005, and another female candidate, Salwa al-Jassar, also secured seats in Parliament.

Islamist losses
Analysts predicted before the polls that Islamists would lose some ground, boosting the hopes of liberals and women, but said the swing might be enough to end the deadlock.

”Islamists could lose some seats but it won’t be enough to change the general mood in parliament,” political analyst Shafiq al-Ghabra said. ”The ball will be in the government’s court again to move forward with development.”

Economic reforms
There are no political parties in Kuwait, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, but Parliament has tended to be dominated by conservative Islamists and tribal figures who oppose the government’s economic reforms and press ministers over accountability.

The new assembly will have to vote on a $5-billion economic stimulus package seen as crucial to helping the financial sector overcome the global financial crisis.

The measures were approved in March by the Cabinet, which is dominated by members of the ruling family, and by the ruler, who are allowed to pass approve laws in the absence of a Parliament.

The new assembly will have to vote on the package again.

Although its political system resembles Western democracy more closely than that of any other nation in the Gulf Arab region, Kuwait has fallen behind its neighbours who have transformed themselves into commercial, financial and tourist centres that attract foreign investors.

Kuwaiti politics both repels and inspires fellow Gulf Arabs. In no other Gulf state is the ruling dynasty’s power as diluted by popular political participation as it is in Kuwait.

Other Gulf rulers look askance at the system, while some voters say the rowdy parliament sets a bad example, holding back development they see implemented by decree around the Gulf. — Reuters